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What Ifs? of American History: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (What If? (G.P. Putnam's Sons)) [Hardcover]

Robert Cowley
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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  • Hardcover: 298 pages
  • Publisher: G. P. Putnam's Sons; 1st Edition edition (Oct 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0399150919
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399150913
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 16.1 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,581,488 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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The name Mayflower evokes a melange of associations: the Pilgrim Fathers, Plymouth Rock, the first Thanksgiving, or the faintly aristocratic cachet attached to descendants of those who, in 1620, sailed on America's most famous immigrant ship. Read the first page
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Road Not Taken 4 Dec 2003
Format:Hardcover
History is often written as if outcomes were inevitable, as if the 13 Colonies were ordained to win the American Revolution or the Union to prevail in the Civil War. But history is contingent, and the only way to fully appreciate the significance of a given event is to think about what might have happened if things had turned out differently.
At first, I was a little put off by the "What If?" series of books, thinking the essays were probably more like works of science fiction than reliable articles about history. For the most part, I was mistaken, and I recommend this book and its prequels ("What If?" and "What If2?") to anyone seeking a better understanding of some of history's conspicuous turning points.
The essays generally fall into three categories. The first, which I enjoy the most, explain the historical context of a given occurrence and then engage in limited (but very illuminating) speculation about what might have happened if that event hadn't turned out the way it did. Examples of this type include Theodore Rabb's "Might the Mayflower Not Have Sailed" and John Lukac's "No Pearl Harbor?: FDR Delays the War."
Other essays also offer up the historical context but move on to engage in much bolder speculation. An example is Caleb Carr's "William Pitt the Elder and the Avoidance of the American Revolution," which explores a cascade of assumptions about how the 19th and 20th centuries would have been different if Britain had kept the 13 Colonies (the intriguing conclusion being that the world might have been better off). The problem with this approach is that it assumes that events in the rest of the world would have stayed on more or less the same path notwithstanding a dramatic change in the outcome of the American Revolution.
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Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  26 reviews
30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Road Not Taken 27 Nov 2003
By William Holmes - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
History is often written as if outcomes were inevitable, as if the colonies were ordained to win the American Revolution or the Union to prevail in the Civil War. But history is contingent, and the only way to fully appreciate the significance of a given event is to think about what might have happened if things had turned out differently.
At first, I was a little put off by the "What If?" series of books, thinking the essays were probably more like works of science fiction than reliable articles about history. For the most part, I was mistaken, and I recommend this book and its prequels ("What If?" and "What If2?") to anyone seeking a better understanding of some of history's conspicuous turning points.
The essays generally fall into three categories. The first, which I enjoy the most, explain the historical context of a given occurrence and then engage in limited (but very illuminating) speculation about what might have happened if that event hadn't turned out the way it did. Examples of this type include Theodore Rabb's "Might the Mayflower Not Have Sailed" and John Lukac's "No Pearl Harbor?: FDR Delays the War."
Other essays also offer up the historical context but move on to engage in much bolder speculation. An example is Caleb Carr's "William Pitt the Elder and the Avoidance of the American Revolution," which explores a cascade of assumptions about how the 19th and 20th Century would have been different if Britain had kept the 13 colonies (the intriguing conclusion being that the world might have been better off). The problem with this approach is that it assumes that events in the rest of the world would have stayed on more or less the same path notwithstanding a dramatic change in the outcome of the American revolution. This enables Carr to speculate, for example, on a 19th century summit between Disraeli and Bismarck, but I wonder if either of those two persons would have played the same role in history had the events of the late 18th century been dramatically different than what they actually were.
The final type of essay dives right into the counterfactual world without clearly setting out the historical context. Examples are Andrew Roberts "The Whale and the Wolf, " which immediately launches into a history of a hypothetical Anglo-American War of 1896 and Ted Morgan's "Joe McCarthy's Secret Life," a tongue-in-cheek speculation that McCarthy was really a Soviet spy. For my tastes, the problem with these essays is that they spend very little time distinguishing between what did and didn't actually happen, which means that the reader is less likely to learn about history than about the author's speculations.
On the whole, "What Ifs? of American History" is a very entertaining and readable book. If you enjoy it, consider getting the other two "What If" books, as well as Victor David Hanson's "Ripples of Battle" (which shares many features with the "What If?" series).
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Treasure Trove of What If's in Alternate American History 22 Sep 2004
By Alan Rockman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Robert Cowley has done it again!

After two first-rate "what if" books covering alternative endings of major events in World History, Cowley and his distinguished coterie of authors (James McPherson, Jay Winik, Caleb Carr, Cecilia Holland, et. al.,) have taken on the major events of American History and have provided a fresh view and sometimes not too pleasant alternative endings to them.

Consider this: Jay Winik's "John Wilkes Booth's Wildest Dream" - a Union angered by the assassination of Lincoln enacting retribution on Southern leaders, with the South in turn resorting to widespread guerrilla warfare, which by the time Grant takes office, is practically uncontrollable. Winik had already alluded to the possible horror of guerrilla warfare had Lee NOT surrendered at Appomattox; here he elaborates on it.

In another essay, Anthony Beevor writes an intriguing "what if" Eisenhower had given the "green light" for American forces to seize Berlin ahead of the advancing Red Army in the spring of 1945, and the probable consequences of such an order. We now know that Stalin was prepared to order Red Army commanders to open fire if the U.S. 9th Army had entered the city.

Or a Nuclear Holocaust where the United States, having experienced a Soviet tactical nuclear response in Cuba, and several strikes on the United States itself, resulting in the deaths of both JFK and Lyndon Johnson, resorts to a massive Nuclear assault on the Soviet Union? A quarter of a million Americans are killed, but that is nothing compared to the virtual obliteration of the old USSR, where only a tenth of the population survive the American air and sea bomber and missile assaults - and the world is so revulsed by this overkill that America is ostracized for the next three decades. Wow!

And that is just the tip of the alternative history iceberg...consider a Nixon Presidency that survived Watergate, or an America wracked by Labor Strife in 1877!

About the only faults that I can find in this remarkable work is the regurgitation of James McPherson's brilliant essay on an alternative Antietam which turned in a Lee victory at Gettysburg, an "event" already visited in the first "What If" volume. Also no alternative 9/11 or war on terror essay, as this book ends with Nixon and Vietnam. It also might have been fascinating to see alternative endings to Little Big Horn, where Custer was victorious over Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, or a turn of events in the Spanish-American War. Hope Mr. Cowley and his associates will take on these and other events next time around.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars American History that Might Have Been 9 Feb 2004
By Brian D. Rubendall - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is the third collection in the superb "What If" series, and the first to focus exclusively on American History. The first caveat I would give to anyone thinking of making a purchase is that two of these essays (by David McCullough and James McPherson) are repeats from the first volume in the series. I would secondly note that the quality of the essays included here vary wildy.
Some, like the speculation on John Tyler's ascendency from Vice-President to President upon the death of William Henry Harrison, and the possible outcome of a third U.S. war with Britain (circa 1896) are quite informative. At least one, a telling of the Cuban Missle Crisis as if it precipated World War III, is quite chilling. Others, however, are less engaging. Anthony Beevor's recounting of Eisenhower's decision at the end of World War II not to march on Berlin, for example, adds little to the controversy that wasn't already there.
Overall, a worthwhile collection for those who love counterfactual historical speculation, with the above reservations.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Intresting Thoughts On American History 10 Dec 2003
By J - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I have to say that this edition of "What If?" does make you think, especially about what could have happened regarding the history of the U.S. had things gone a diffrent way.
I've found a lot of the senarios presented in this book(particularly the ones on Pearl Harbor, Joe McCarthy and JFK) to be fasciniting and it really does make you think and look back.
I would definitely recommend this book to any fan of history.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Imaginative Speculation On Roads Not Taken 10 Nov 2003
By W. C HALL - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The introduction to one of the selections in this book suggests that it can be thought of as an "American Baedeker of roads that could have been, or almost were, taken." That's as good a description of any of this third volume in the "What If?" series of historical speculations. Once more, editor Robert Cowley has assembled a panel of noted historians and novelists, who offer all sorts of intriguing possibilities--an America without a revolution; what might have happened if the plot to assassinate Lincoln had also succeeded in killing Vice President Johnson; what might have been the consequences if the US and Britain had actually gone to war over a South American boundary dispute in 1896; and what might have happened had John F. Kennedy not been murdered. The tone of the pieces varies from the tongue in cheek (speculation on what the true motives behind Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade might have been) to the truly frightening (a picture of the world in 1972, ten years after the Cuban Missile Crisis leads to a widespread launch of nuclear weaponry).

Playing "What If?" can be an interesting parlor game, but it can also help to illuminate the importance of real-life decisions. In the scenario of a world where both Lincoln and Johnson are killed, the resulting chaos triggers a decision by Robert E. Lee to endorse the wish of Jefferson Davis and many others in the Confederate military--not to lay down arms at that point, but to continue the fight as a guerrilla war, one that might have ended up costing countless more lives and prevented the nation's sectional breach from ever healing.

With contributions from writers of the caliber of Caleb Carr, Robert Dallek, Tom Wicker and Jay Winick, the reader can be assured of an entertaining as well as a thought-provoking read. My one complaint is about the decision to include two pieces from the first book in the series, published in 1999. The jacket copy says these are pieces any American history collection would not be complete without. That strikes me as a rather thin excuse for the recycling. A big part of this book's audience will obviously be readers who have purchased the first two volumes, which are still easily available. If the publishers wanted to include some reprinted material, they could have easily mined the rich archives of the alternate history genre.--William C. Hall
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