- Hardcover: 395 pages
- Publisher: Putnam Adult (September 13, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0399145761
- ISBN-13: 978-0399145766
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 128 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #595,262 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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What if...? Hardcover – September 13, 1999
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Counterfactuals--what-if scenarios--fueled countless bull sessions in smoke-filled dorm rooms in the 1960s. What if Sitting Bull had had a machine gun at Little Big Horn? What if Attila the Hun had had a time machine? What if Columbus had landed in India after all? Some of those dorm-room speculators grew up to be historians, and their generation (along with a few younger and older scholars) makes a strong showing in this anthology of essays, in which the what-ifs are substantially more plausible. What if Hitler had not attacked Russia when he did? He might have moved into the Middle East and secured the oil supplies the Third Reich so badly needed, helping it retain its power in Europe. What if D-Day had been a failure? The Soviet Union might have controlled all of Europe. What if Sennacherib had pressed the siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.? Then the nascent, monotheistic Jewish religion might never have taken hold among the people of Judah--and the daughter religions of Christianity and Islam would never have been born.
So suggest some of the many first-rate contributors to this collection, which grew from a special issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. One of them is classicist Josiah Ober, who suggests that if Alexander the Great had died at the age of 21 instead of 32, Greece would have been swallowed up by Persia and Rome, and the modern Western world would have a much different sensibility--and probably little idea of democratic government. Still other contributors are Stephen E. Ambrose, Caleb Carr, John Keegan, David McCullough, and James McPherson, who examine a range of scenarios populated by dozens of historical figures, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Chiang Kai-shek, Robert E. Lee, Benito Mussolini, and Themistocles. The result is a fascinating exercise in historical speculation, one that emphasizes the importance of accident and of roads not taken in the evolution of human societies across time. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
CounterfactualsAconsiderations of alternate outcomesAmake up one of the main provinces of military history. This volume, for which an A&E companion TV documentary is scheduled in November, incorporates two dozen essays and a dozen sidebars on what might have happened by writers of diverse specialties, including generalist Lewis Lapham, novelist Cecelia Holland and historians John Keegan, David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose. Readers willing to be open-minded can consider Europe's fate had the Mongols continued their 13th-century course of conquest. They can speculate on the death in battle of Hern n Cort?s and the consequences of an Aztec Empire surviving to present times. Thanks to James McPherson, they can read of a battle of Gettysburg fought in 1862 (instead of 1963) and resulting in a Confederate victory, or the consequences of a Confederate defeat at Chancellorsville courtesy of Steven Sears. Ambrose suggests that Allied defeat on D-Day would have meant nuclear devastation for Germany in the summer of 1945. Arthur Waldron presents a China, and a world, that might have been far different had Chiang Kai-shek not taken the risk of invading Manchuria in 1946. Consistently well drawn, these scenarios open intellectual as well as imaginative doors for anyone willing to walk through them. Maps and photos not seen by PW. Audio rights to Simon & Schuster; foreign rights sold in the U.K. and Germany. (Sept.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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These are mostly military events in one way or another. I don't think that should be taken to mean all critical events in world history have been military in nature. It just means military battles are particularly prone to outcomes which hinge on small factors.
And it's the smallness of the factors here that is most enlightening. From the appearance of fog in Brooklyn one night in the summer of 1776, to an envelope accidentally dropped onto the ground in a field of clover in Maryland. These are the tiniest of influences that drastically altered the fate of the world.
Because of the anthology nature of this book, some of the chapters are inconsistent. The one about the revolutionary war doesn't follow the pattern used in most of the chapters at all. But that doesn't detract from the great fun you'll have in considering how the world we live in might have so easily and profoundly diverged from what we know today. It's healthy to have your faith in the inevitability of history shaken.
Secondly, most of the authors only set the stage of history in detail as it happened, set vaguely a course of where-it-most-likely-would-lead and then give you a space for your imagination to chew on the idea and spit out your own version of the what-if universe.
Even though I expected that the alternative worlds will be described more thoroughly, I eventually realized that I am enjoying the book as it was - a chronicle of real events spiced with an exciting view of alternative turn-out of the course of the history.
Counterfactual histories can be useful ways to learn history, but they have limitations. Most of the better essays, such as John Keegan's "How Hitler Could Have Won the War" and Alistair Horne's "Ruler of the World: Napoleon's Lost Opportunities" are limited in scope and describe how, had certain leaders taken a different approach, they could have been more effective and possibly changed history. Others, such as Thomas Fleming's "Unlikely Victory: Thirteen Ways the Americans Could Have Lost the Revolution" and Robert Cowley's "The What Ifs of 1914," describe the many tiny turning points that could have radically changed history. All of these essays do a very good job and remain true to the limited utility of counterfactual history: what ifs are possible different courses of history and should be described as such.
Unfortunately, not all of the essays are so limited and go on to speculate concrete changes, especially the essays about the ancient world. For example, Lewis Lapham, in "Furor Teutonicus: The Teutonic Forest, A.D. 9," speculates that, had the Romans defeated the Germanic army in that battle, the Roman Empire would have lasted until modern times, and the U.S.A. would instead have become the United (Roman) Provinces of America.
The book is well worth reading. Overall, the authors do a good job illustrating why these battles or events are so important, and one of its strengths is the breadth of "key battles" in history that are covered. And while some of the essays are weaker than others, none of the essays are very long, and soon the reader will be on to another watershed moment in history.
Most recent customer reviews
A interesting compedium of various counterfactuals in human history.Read more