Wednesday, July 22, 2015

3 What Ifs from Jon Meacham's Franklin and Winston

Over my vacation I read Jon Meacham's Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship. It was a good book and I can certainly recommend it, but I try not to give full reviews of straight history books on this blog. Nevertheless, there were some counterfactuals scattered throughout the book that grabbed my attention.

You see even the most straight laced historian dabbles in what ifs from time to time. Often it is even unintentional. If a historian says "because of x, we got y", then presumably if we remove x, then there won't be a y. Meacham is no exception to this phenomenon and here are the top three what ifs from his novel:

#1: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt divorce

Although perhaps unknown at the time by the general public, Roosevelt's extramarital affairs are well known to historians. After Eleanor found out about his affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918, Eleanor threatened to divorce him, which would have meant the doom of his political career. Franklin promised to stop seeing her, but he continued to do so in secret. Then in 1921, Franklin contracted polio and became paralyzed. Nevertheless, he continued his career in politics and became the only president of the United States to be elected four times.

Meacham briefly argued that Franklin's paralysis was actually a boon to his political career. He believed that if Franklin had never contracted polio, he would have had more affairs and would have been less discreet. Eleanor would have eventually have found out and would have carried out her threat to divorce Franklin. Being a divorced man in the 1920s would have ruined his chance at high office and thus someone else would have to carry the burden of leading America during the Great Depression and WWII.

While it is difficult to speculate on what would happen if someone else other than Roosevelt led America during these difficult times, I am not entirely convinced Eleanor would have divorced Franklin if she had caught him cheating again. If life could be difficult for a divorced man back in the early 20th century, just think how difficult it would be for a divorced woman. Eleanor lived a very public life as well and championed causes that often put her at odds with her husband. Her ability to live her life the way she wanted could have been hampered as well by a divorce so she may have just sucked up the embarrassment and come to some other understanding with her husband. Then again considering the liberal principles she held dear, she may still have divorced Franklin. Sometimes it is easier to see how a nation will change in an alternate history than how a single individual will change.

#2: The Anglo-American Union

It is a well known fact that Winston Churchill, after he became Prime Minister of Britain, sought to bring the United States into the war against Nazi Germany as soon as possible. What is not as well-known is Churchill's dreams about what to do after this feat was accomplished. As Franklin and Winston worked together to lead their countries in the fight against the Axis powers, Winston floated ideas about a closer union between the two countries, including shared passports and a common currency. There is no denying that Churchill wished to unite the English speaking peoples of the world (he stated as much in his own alternate history work: "If Lee had not Won the Battle of Gettysburg") and perhaps he thought now was the best time do it.

It is hard to pinpoint an exact point of divergence for this one. For such a union to occur the positions of the United States and Britain would need to be vastly different. Post-war Britain would need to be better off, the United States would need to be weaker and the peoples of both nations would need see such a union as mutually beneficial. Even if they wanted it there are still plenty of kinks to work out. For example, what would be the status of the British Empire? Its perhaps not much of a stretch to think that Canada and Australia would be treated as equals, but what about India or Nigeria? FDR was a proponent of self-determination, while Winston stated again and again he would not preside over the dismemberment of the Empire. Would the majority non-white states be allowed full membership or would 1940s racial ideas win out and they would be pushed out of the decision making?

Nonetheless, such a union never came to be and the many parts of the British Empire gained independence. Today the American-British alliance is still strong, which Meacham argues is a testament to the very real friendship of Franklin and Winston. Still one wonders what would have happened if such a union ever came about. Would it be something like today's European Union or would it be something else entirely? Would other nations not affiliated with America or the British Empire join? How would this bloc handle the Cold War with the Soviets? So many questions and no real plausible answers.

#3: Rommel at the Suez

We have come now to perhaps the most important what if in Franklin and Winston. When Winston Churchill learned of the fall of Tobruk and the surrender of 35,000 Allied troopes, he was visiting Franklin Roosevelt in the United States. Looking sad and dejected upon hearing the news, Franklin reached out to his friend and offered whatever help he and America provided. Winston asked for the Sherman tanks that were supposed to be given to the American Army. Franklin agreed and 300 new Sherman tanks were handed over to the British and saw combat at the Second Battle of El Alamein that ended the Axis advance to the Suez and beyond and likely saved the lives of the Palestinian Jews.

The crux of Meacham's argument in his book is that the friendship between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill was a contributing factor to the Allied victory in WWII. If Churchill had been less successful "courting Roosevelt" (the author's words, not mine exactly) or someone else had been in the White House, then the United States may have been less willing to part with their new tanks. Without the equipment, Rommell may have been victorious at El Alamein and could have crossed the Suez into the Middle East. Such a dramatic defeat could have led to the end of Churchill's government and Britain may have sought a separate peace with Germany, allowing Hitler to turn his full attention on the Soviet Union. Although Japan would probably still be doomed at this point, an alternate Cold War with the United States squaring off against Nazi Europe was still possible.

Then again the war could have still ended in an Allied victory, it just would have taken longer with the Soviets having to liberate the rest of Europe (although perhaps a longer war on the Eastern Front could have led to the Soviets negotiating their own peace with the Germans). Then again one can argue that Meacham put too much emphasis on the friendship between the world leaders and that any President would see that the deteriorating strategic situation in North Africa needed to be fixed and would have given the tanks to Churchill regardless of what he thought of him personally. Nevertheless, when Churchill was at his lowest, FDR reached out to help a friend and if he or someone else didn't do that, the world could have been a very different place.


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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update, a blogger on Amazing Stories and a Sidewise Awards for Alternate History judgeWhen not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the day when travel between parallel universes becomes a reality. You can follow him on FacebookTwitter and YouTube.

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