Friday, 6 April 2012

Fun with counter-factuals

The counter-factual is one of the more amusing ways of looking at history. Completely useless, but when did that ever make things less fun? It’s entertaining to wonder what would have happened if Lincoln had not been murdered or if Dubya Bush had had a working brain. Entertaining but useless because we’re stuck with the history we have and that just wasn’t the way things worked out, whatever we might have wished.

But as well counter-factuals about people, you can also play the game with dates. For instance, 7 December 1941. That, as few Americans will need reminding, is the day the Japanese Imperial Navy launched its ultimately disastrous attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Perhaps the real key date is actually not 7 December but 12 November, the day the decision to launch the attack was probably finalised. 

Pearl Harbor: bad news for the US at first glance;
far worse for Japan (and Germany) on more mature reflection
There was nothing inevitable about the decision. The Japanese didn’t have to swing South after their successful campaigns in China, they certainly didn’t have to attack the United States. They could have chosen to go North and take on the Soviet Union, ignoring the US Pacific Holdings and West European Powers whose colonies they walked all over in South East Asia.

Had Japan taken on the Soviets, there’s no reason to assume the US would have entered the war at that time. There was massive opposition to that entanglement and Roosevelt, whatever his personal feelings, would have found it hard to get stuck in against the pressure. And joining in the war to help out the Soviet Union? That would have gone down like a lead balloon.

So just at the time that the Soviets were in a battle for their lives against Nazi Germany, whose forces came within 12 miles of the centre of Moscow, they might have found themselves oblige to divert forces eastward to counter an invasion from that quarter. Would the Germans then have been beaten in the West? And had Germany been able to extract its forces from a successful campaign in Russia, how long would Britain have lasted?

But none of that happened. On 12 November 1941 the Japanese decided that it was sensible to take on the might of the United States. The Germans who were determined to support their Japanese allies against the US, declared war, and Roosevelt was in with an excellent justification and no need to overcome public opinion.

It was probably the most stupid decision the Japanese government could have taken. As a result, where I might deplore it in the case of Dubya, I’m delighted by this demonstration that imbecility is not incompatible with high political office:  t
he alternative suggests outcomes I prefer not to contemplate.

12 November 1941: a date that deserves a glass raising to it.

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