Paths Not Taken
Euel Elliott, Kruti Lehenbauer, Richard K Laird
General Editor: Troy Camplin
Alternate History Essays
Just as with our personal lives, history is replete with the question "What if?" Exploring the broad sweep of American history and politics, Paths Not Taken, written for a broad, general audience, explores this very question, and does so in a way that will keep the reader entertained, and at the end of the day, come away with a greater appreciation for how we got to where we are today as a nation.
Arguments that single events, even seemingly trivial events, can lead to dramatic changes in historical outcomes are sometimes referred to as "butterfly effects." In other words, a very modest change in the parameters of a system can radically alter the outcome. Although used as a metaphor and not necessarily meant to describe reality, the butterfly effect says that a butterfly, flapping its wings in, say, China, can, as a result of initializing tiny changes in environmental conditions, produce a tornado in Kansas. While perhaps not literally true, it captures the basic idea that small changes in the conditions of some system (in our case, some historical period) can produce major differences in outcomes.
A variation in this theme is that some alteration of a system may not necessarily produce immediate or at least visible changes, but may lead to a very gradual series of alterations that plays out over many years, or even centuries. In this scenario, as events accumulate, restoring the original timeline becomes more difficult, if not impossible.
However, there is a third possibility, which suggests that a particular event, or the presence or absence of some important historical figure (as defined by historians and others), in the end, makes no difference to historical outcomes. This suggests that there may be broad forces at work - cultural, economic, or political - that can overwhelm the importance of individuals or even of particular events. This approach to alternative history is troubling to many because it suggests a historical determinism trivializing the role of the individual. Paths Not Taken does not explicitly endorse or reject any of these approaches, and all of them have been used to some extent in this book.
We like to believe that, for example, had President John Kennedy not been assassinated, the history of the 1960s and 1970s might have been less tumultuous. Would the Vietnam War have taken place at all or, at a minimum, would it have unfolded as it did? Would the civil unrest that we witnessed in the cities during the 1960s, such as the riots in Watts in South Los Angeles, the Detroit riots in 1967, and the outbreak of violence following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, have taken place? For that matter, in an alternative history in which Kennedy had lived, could Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also have survived, avoiding assassination by James Earl Ray?
Many others, including eminent historians, have used this approach to examine key historical events and their consequences. Our approach to alternative history focuses on critical events, and emphasizes the important political, cultural, and economic alternative histories that ensue by altering one or more of the events that did, in fact, occur. We do not try to develop a narrative or spend time with character development, nor attempt to imbue Paths Not Taken with fully developed fictional characters and complex motives, and uses these figures in the most sparing way to set up an alternative historical event. We are examining twenty-nine alternative histories, and accordingly, our chapters are relatively short and compact, allowing the reader to better discriminate among topics.
Paths Not Taken reinforces the point that counterfactual and alternative history can be a significant intellectual resource.