Sunday, April 21, 2013

Podcast Ep.3: The Comintern

The Comintern is the second installment in a series on the Soviet Union. In this episode we discussed alternate history scenarios set in the period of the Communist International, roughly the inter-war years and World War II. You can download the MP3 here or watch it through youtube by clicking the embedded video below.

In other news, life has been a little hectic. However, I should be resuming the normal posting schedule fairly soon. Cross your fingers.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

How could America have been more like Rome?

People love to compare the United States to Ancient Rome. The analogy is usually used to evoke concern about the direction of the United States, because if America is following in the footsteps of the Roman Republic overthrow of the Republic must be imminent. Right?

If you look at actual American history, the parallels to Rome become superficial, at best. But how could American history have tracked Roman history much more closely? That question I have attempted to explore below, keeping in mind that the exercise can only go so far before things stop making any sense.

The major struggle which informed most of the Republic's history could be termed a class struggle of sorts. First it was the patricians against the plebeians, and later the wealthy plebeians and remaining patricians (or optimates) against the masses. That interpretation of history echoes rather eerily the Marxist framework of class struggle. Patricians are nobles, wealthy plebeians are the bourgeoisie, and the masses are the proletariat. But how could a strong class system be imported to the thirteen colonies, which never had to contend with native nobility as European radicals in the 18th century did?

An easy solution to this problem involves the British parliament acquiescing to enough of the rebels' demands on the eve of the American Revolution. Perhaps a plan similar to the Albany Plan of Union originally proposed by Benjamin Franklin in 1759 would have been implemented, wherein a continental parliament would be created to govern continental affairs, though still answerable to the Crown. A parliamentary system, in the long run, would likely lead to a unitary system of government, rather than the federalist system which constrained the national government's authority, another change to make America resemble Rome more clearly. For this reason I will from now on refer to this state as the American Republic, rather than the United States.

The American parliament, a unicameral body whose members are elected by all the male landowners in the country, would have appeared very enlightened to Europe at the time. There are no titles of nobility, no analogue to the patrician class. However, by encoding a class divide in government, without a constitution proclaiming all men to be equal (in theory), the social situation matches Roman rivalry between the optimates and populares. When the American Republic begins to industrialize, it will experience an even stronger struggle between industrialists and workers, or the bourgeoisie and proletariat as Karl Marx would say.

If one follows the Roman metaphor to the fullest, a socialist party analogue to the Gracchi brothers would be elected to power. Their redistributive policies would be popular with the masses, but prompt an industrialist coup. The socialists would make a come back a decade later, but this time an agenda including giving equal rights to people of color would have lost them the support of the white working class, causing them to lose power for a second time. From here on, all of the forces which mobilize the working classes would be ambitious men with their own agendas. To put it succinctly, in this timeline the industrialists win; workers protections continue to be minimal, at best, into the 20th century.

This pattern of social unrest more closely resembles that of the Roman Republic. However, to be a faithful shadow of ancient Rome, the American Republic will need to expand even more, territorially. Rome ruled a huge expanse of territory with a government best suited to governing a city-state. This allowed ambitious men to raise support in the provinces and bully the senate into implementing their agenda, which became a theme of the last century or so of the Republic. The American Republic is already starting out larger, possessing all of Canada. However, to really outgrow their government, the American Republic will have to expand more. The obvious target is Latin America, but the United States conquering all of Latin America raises some serious plausibility issues.

Below is a rough time line of events which I hope respects plausibility while still resembling Roman territorial expansion.
  • 1773: Plan of Union is implemented, preventing the American Revolution and creating a continental parliament subject to the English crown.
  • 1789: French Revolution begins. Events follow a broadly similar course to our time line. However, butterflies alter the continental wars to avoid a Peninsular War. This causes the United Kingdom to shift its strategy and conquer the Spanish New World, setting up a series of British protectorates it traded with as opposed to the continent, due in part to a more successful Continental System. Thus France and the United Kingdom are in a near perpetual state of war for a decade longer than our timeline.
  • 1818: Fed up with having to continually contribute to a continental war, the American parliament rebels, instituting an American parliamentary Republic. The United Kingdom, occupied with European affairs, is unable to prevent them from succeeding, sending only a token force to stop them.
  • 1836: Mexico, a British protectorate, and the American Republic go to war over conflicting claims in the Louisiana territory. The gruelling war catalyzes the creation of a professional American army. That army is successful; in the peace treaty America gains all of northern Mexico and installs a governor in what is now the American protectorate of Mexico.
I won't continue with specifics, but the idea is that Mexico anglicizes to an extant, allowing it to become a component of the American empire. The empire, spanning the entire continent of North America, is certainly large enough. The unitary system of government means that all provincial officials would owe their position to Philadelphia, the capital of the American Republic, rather than the province they govern. So when violent political struggles break out, whether they be driven by class conflict or simple ambition, Philadelphia will always play the central role that Rome did two millennia ago. Perhaps crossing the Appalachian mountains will be similar to crossing the Rubicon.

I hope you enjoyed this stab at what a more Roman America would look like. Please comment on what you liked and what you didn't like. I feel like this idea could use a time line of its own, so comment if you would be interested in reading that also.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Soviet Napoleon, a what-if

Today we recorded the third episode of the Alternate History podcast. The topic was the Comintern, the period between the Russian Revolution and World War Two. One alternate history possibility posed during the discussion really got me thinking.

The Great Purge in the late 1930s was Stalin's way of dealing with his enemies, the vast majority of whom were innocent men who had the misfortune of being officers in the Russian military. However, one of those men was certainly at odds with Stalin. Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Marshall of the Soviet Union, was a brilliant military mind, hindered only by Stalin's insidious micromanaging. He resented the Stalin for that, understandably so, though there is no evidence he ever sought to stage a coup as Stalin's paranoia feared.

But what if something about the Purge was altered, some slight event that tipped Tukhachevsky off before being captured. Just the right change to convince the "little Napoleon," as Stalin called him, that his only option to survive was to overthrow Stalin. If he had evidence of imminent purges he could certainly get the officer corps to support him, and with the army at his back Stalin would have been a dead man. What might the repercussions of Tukhachevsky instituting a military dictatorship in Soviet Russia in 1937 have been?

Such a change most obviously alters the entire complexion of World War Two. With the officer corp intact and without Stalin meddling in strategy and tactics from Moscow, the Red army will not be nearly as hamstrung against the Nazis as they were in our time line. I believe it is possible that after the initial thrust of Operation Barbarossa into Germany, most of the fighting would have taken place in Poland.

That assumes there is an Operation Barbarossa at all. 1937 leaves plenty of wiggle room for butterflies. Without the purges, the Soviet Union would most certainly have been a party to the Munch Conference of 1938, and as a strong supporter of Czechoslovakia, Tukhachevsky may have gone to war to prevent a Nazi takeover of the Sudetenland. With Germany much weaker and the Soviet Union much stronger at this time, I can certainly imagine Hitler delaying his invasions, for if he did he would most certainly have been destroyed. That obviously has massive butterflies.

If Czechoslovakia is still strong, independent, and supported by other powers, an invasion of Poland seems absolutely suicidal. However, Hitler, was nothing if not insane, and I could certainly imagine some attempt at invading either Czechoslovakia or Poland leading to a military coup in Germany. The possibilities from there seem limitless. The stand out difference from our time line, however, is that the horrific conflict that was World War Two would have ended much more quickly in this time by a stronger Soviet Union.

It is doubtful that a Tukhachevsky dictatorship would be all roses; dictatorships never are. But could his authoritarian regime really be worse than Stalin's? I cannot imagine so. I will refrain from speculating on how this change would effect things within the Soviet Union. All I can say is that I hope someone who knows more about the Soviet Union makes a time line based on this point of divergence.

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Again, sorry about running behind schedule. After Easter I should be able to find a balance. The podcast which inspired this post will (hopefully) be edited and uploaded by Wednesday. If it isn't, feel free to call me out!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

What if the Columbian expedition was a complete failure?

One common alternate history question is "what if Columbus never discovered the Americas?" I am interested in a slightly different possibility; what if Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, but never returned to tell the tale? Say, for the sake of argument, that on the return voyage the NiƱa and Pinta are destroyed by a hurricane. How does this impact the Age of Exploration?

Unfortunately, I do not think the Native Americans would get more than a few years respite from contact with Europeans. In our timeline, a Portuguese fleet intending to sail off course drifted west to make landfall in Brazil. That voyage occurred independent of Columbus and there is no reason to think it would not serve as the first contact in this scenario. Now, what does that mean for future voyages and eventual European colonization?

Who explored what in our timeline was initially very random, and there is no reason to think there might be any sort of predictable pattern to the voyages of this alternate universe. One important early alteration, however, is the absence of a Treaty of Tordesillas, which effectively bottled up the Portuguese in Brazil to the benefit of the Spanish. In this scenario there is no reason to think the Aterni Regis, the 1481 Papal Bull which affirmed the Canary Islands as Spanish territory and granted all land south of them to Portugal. That means all the riches of Central and South America are nominal Portuguese, at least in the beginning.

How long the Portuguese could hold to such immense treasure is another question. In 1580, a Portuguese succession crisis resulted in the King of Spain seizing the Portuguese crown, effectively uniting the two lands. I suspect such an event would occur early, if possible, and that Spain would be more invested in holding onto the Portuguese crown for as long as it meant owning the riches of the Incans and Aztecs. Though the question must be asked, would there be Portuguese equivalents of conquistadors in this timeline?

I have to say no. Portuguese history during this time period shows much more interest in establishing trading outposts in foreign lands to trade with locals then in conquering large swathes of territory. Thus the Native Americans have gained valuable time, perhaps as much as century, to regroup from inevitable decimation by disease and mount a defense against whatever Europeans might try to steal their land.

Whether an analogous situation to Africa is possible, where the native people survive European colonization and eventually throw off the foreign masters, is debatable. It should certainly be possible in the more densely populated parts of Central and South America, though I am more skeptical that European land-grabs could be resisted in North America, particularly if that is Spain'smain theatre of operation early on. Speaking of Africa, the lack of an African slave trade that a stable native population would assume will have massive implications on West Africa's history.

I won't try and cover all of the butterflies in this one blog post. If you are interested in reading more, read this thread on, where I contributed to a collaborative timeline based on this very concept.

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Sorry for the late update, life has been a little hectic. I can just about guarantee I will be off schedule this coming week, with Easter and all. But hopefully I'll be able to fall into a nice pattern at some point. And remember, if you like these articles, share them!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Rick Santorum will (probably) be the next US President, says history

Writing that headline just about made me physically ill. But I have been reading the tea leaves and, unfortunately, all the signs point to his coronation at the 2016 Republican Convention and victory over the Democratic candidate. Hopefully in 2016 I will look back at this post and laugh at how wrong I am, but for now let me explain why I say this.

The first thing you have to understand is that the Republican Party has a long trend of nominating the "heir-apparent," meaning whoever appears likely to win based on previous primary results. To show you what I mean I put together the below chart, showing the GOP Presidential nominee and "runner-up" (usually the second place finisher in the primaries) since 1952.

1952 | Dwight Eisenhower - None (drafted by the GOP)
1960 | Richard Nixon ------- None (Swept the field as Ike's VP)
1964 | Barry Goldwater ---- None (Nixon, essentially runner-up, sat out for '68)
1968 | Richard Nixon -------- Ronald Reagan
1976 | Gerald Ford ----------- Ronald Reagan
1980 | Ronald Reagan ------ George H.W. Bush
1988 | George H.W. Bush -- Bob Dole
1996 | Bob Dole -------------- None (W. Bush was the frontrunner next because of H.W.)
2000 | George W. Bush ---- John McCain
2008 | John McCain -------- Mitt Romney
2012 | Mitt Romney --------- Rick Santorum

I started the list with Eisenhower because he represents a new beginning for the Republican Party after the FDR-Truman era. Eisenhower of course, was a war hero from World War Two who was courted by both parties before sweeping the nomination in 1960. His Vice President, Richard Nixon, would become the very first "heir-apparent" and would also define Republican Presidential politics for a decade and a half. As you can see on the list, there are three years after Eisenhower which do not follow the heir-apparent pattern and Richard Nixon is in a way responsible for all three anomalies.

After losing the general election to John F. Kennedy by a whisker in 1960, Richard Nixon took a break from Presidential politics. Because he was the heir apparent, the 1964 GOP presidential race was a messy affair, further complicated by the chilling effect the assassination of JFK had on the political sphere. Conservative heartthrob Barry Goldwater was eventually nominated, after fending off challenges from a number of candidates, including Nelson Rockefeller. Goldwater lost in a landslide to Lyndon B. Johnson. Nelson would appear one last time as Ford's Vice President after the Watergate scandal, though he declined to seek the nomination at the 1976 convention for either Vice President or President

1976 was another messy election for the Republican Party. Nixon had been forced to resign in 1974 due to the Watergate scandal, and Gerald Ford, who had been appointed Vice President a year earlier after the original Vice President, Spiro Agnew, was indicted for corruption, became President. In 1976 Ford ran for the nomination in hopes of being elected to his first full term. Ronald Reagan, the runner-up from 1976, who felt slighted by events as he normally would have been the heir apparent, launched a strong campaign against Ford, but at the convention Gerald Ford managed to clinch the nomination. Because Rockefeller refused to consider staying on as Ford's Vice President, Bob Dole was selected as Ford's running mate.

The next "open" election would not come for another 20 years. Reagan finally had his two terms, and then his Vice President George H.W. Bush clinched the nomination and presidency in 1988 after a brief scare from Bob Dole. When 1996 rolled around it was Bob Dole's turn. The man had waited twenty years and his seniority, combined with the popularity of Bill Clinton who was seeking a second term, prevented any Republicans of note from entering the fray. Pat Buchanan, a wingnut televangelist nobody took seriously, was technically the runner-up, but in 2000 the Republican Party had a clean slate of candidates to choose from. However, the heir-apparent cycle was never really broken as George W. Bush, son of a former president and establishment favorite, continued the line.

Now let us think about the last primary campaign. Romney, heir-apparent, lead the field consistently, challenged just about every month by a new "anti-Romney" who inevitably faded away. However, the last anti-Romney, Rick Santorum, had a little more staying power. After winning Iowa by a hair, he went on to carry ten more states, eleven in total, with a significant share of the popular vote. He meets all the criteria for being the heir-apparent laid out by Republican predecessors. Another oft-mention heir-apparent, Romney's running mate Paul Ryan, does not have the same credentials. No losing Vice Presidential nominee has ever gone on to win the Republican nomination, at least not without first being a runner-up in the traditional sense as did Bob Dole.

Does this mean Santorum's election is guaranteed? I hope not. The trend seems seems solid, but the sample size of ten meaningful elections (without an incumbent excluding the irregular 1976 primaries) seems a bit small. However, those ten elections are spread across sixty years of political history. To shake the heir-apparent system would require a major shift in the Republican Party. One could certainly argue that the Tea Party is just such a shift. 2012, the first primary season with the Tea Party, was uncharacteristically chaotic for a Republican coronation. Next cycle the "heir-apparent" will be a man who has been out of office for a decade, a particularly weak candidate. However, by now the Tea Party has essentially become the GOP establishment; I do not believe they will so critically assess a candidate which is essentially their own. So maybe 2016 will be the year the cycle ends, but I am not optimistic.

But that does not mean Santorum will be elected president, does it? Surely Hillary Clinton, or whoever the Democrats nominate, would give Santorum a sound thumping. Ah, but this is where a second trend I have identified comes into play. Look below at the list of Democratic nominees from 1960 until 2012 and notice the pattern. Bold means the nominee served as president. Red means the nominee was vice president in the previous administration. Normal text means the nominee never served as president nor as vice president.

1960: John Kennedy
1964: Lyndon Johnson
1968: Hubert Humphrey
1972: George McGovern
1976: Jimmy Carter
1980: Jimmy Carter 
1984: Walter Mondale 
1988: Michael Dukakis
1992: Bill Clinton
1996: Bill Clinton
2000: Al Gore
2004: John Kerry
2008: Barack Obama 
2012: Barack Obama

It is a strong pattern, which surprised me as Democratic primaries are always thought of as very chaotic. They certainly are more so than Republican coronations, but there is still a definite trend. A nominee is elected president, then followed by his vice president, who loses. Then another guys loses. Then the next guy is elected president and the cycle continues. Right now we are at the end of the current Democratic president, which means, if the pattern is followed, Joe Biden will be the next Democratic nominee.

But what about Hillary, you ask? I'm not going to try and read all the tea leaves in this post, but I will note that Hillary has not given any real indication that she wants to run for president. And even if she does, she has been upset once. Why not twice? Is it really such a stretch to believe that the she could be beaten by the sitting Vice President?

But he's Joe Biden, you say! That's right, and that's one more reason I think the trend will hold and Santorum will be able to beat him. Is this analysis airtight? Hell no. But you are reading an alternate history blog. I hope this post was speculative enough to not annoy those of you who are here for history. I promise, the next post will be solid alternate history. Oh and don't forget, there will be a new podcast episode coming out soon...ish. Stay tuned!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Podcast Ep.2: Russian Revolution (1917)

Today the second episode of the alternate history podcast has finally been released. You can listen to us discuss the Russian revolutions of 1917 by clicking the embedded youtube video in this post, or download it directly by clicking here. My plan was to have it listed on iTunes right now, but it looks like I'm going to have trouble doing that so long as I'm stuck with access to one computer that only runs linux. So, unfortunately, effectively promoting this podcast is going to have to be put on hold. That means I really need your help! If you like this podcast, SHARE IT!

Now for some blog-specific news. I'm thinking about switching from posting every Wednesday and Saturday (as was my plan, though I haven't been consistent about it) to Tuesdays and Fridays. Saturdays as it turns out are dead days for blogger traffic, so maybe that will help to subtly promote this blog.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Islam and Christianity Switch Places

What if Islam and Christianity switched places geographically, with Muslims in western Europe and Christians in the eastern Mediterranean region, what we today think of as the "Middle East." While this might seem far fetched at first glance, it is actually historically quite plausible.

Remember Christianity was founded in the east, in the Roman province of Judea. On the eve of the Arab invasions, the Roman Empire, which by the 7th century was mostly the eastern empire with a few holdings in Italy and Spain, sponsored what would become the Catholic church. The Germanic rulers of western Europe on the other hand predominantly followed the Arian heresy.

Next consider the Muslim invasions, events as transformative as they were unlikely. Arguably the only reason tribesmen from the backwater of Arabia managed to conquer most of the western world was the epic war which the two main powers of the time, the Roman (or "Byzantine") Empire and Sassanid Persia, fought from 602 through 628. That war thoroughly exhausted both sides in terms of money, infrastructure, and personnel, allowing the Arabs to sweep through both empires just a few years later.

Removing that Byzantine-Sassanid War is the key to meddling with the geographic placement of Christianity and Islam. So how can that be done? First, we must examine why the war happened in the first place. Up until 602, the emperors of Rome and Persia, Maurice and Khosrau II respectively, were on very good terms. Maurice had rescued Khrosau II from a rebellion a decade earlier, for which Khosrau owed him gratitude. So when Maurice was assassinated by his troops in the winter of 602 for ordering them to winter north of the Danube River, which meant exposing them to attack by invading Slavs and Avars, Khosrau did not hesitate to attack.

Let's say Maurice chose not to push his troops and allowed them to winter in friendly territory. Then for the next three decades, a state of relative peace is maintained between Rome and Persia. Maurice is succeeded by his son and co-emperor Theodosius and things are fine and dandy until the 630s, when, as in our timeline, the Muslims invade.

The Muslim armies were led by a strategical genius named Khalid ibn Al-Whalid. Al-Whalid, reading the different situation, likely would not have attempted to invade Rome and Persia simultaneously. I could come up with any number of justifications for invading Rome first, but to save time let us just assume he decides to head west first. Arab armies, not overstretched as one might argue they were in our timeline, still manage to defeat Roman forces which are more lively then in our timeline. The Levant and Syria fall in 637 and Egypt falls in 639.

But rather then rapidly expanding from this position, war with Rome and the effort of pacifying the newly conquered peoples is enough to keep the Muslims bottled up in this area. Attempts to invade Persia are beaten off by Khosrau and then his successor. But perhaps a decade later, the mass of Arab tribesmen, much more concentrated here than in our timeline, conquer North Africa. A few decades later they cross the Straights of Gibralter, conquering the Visigothic Kingdom in Spain, then storming across the Pyrenees to beat the Franks into submission before turning south to sack Rome itself.

All this might seem far fetched, but remember the resources which were expended in Persia are free in this timeline, those extra Arab tribesmen itching for their own land to rule. But I imagine sacking Rome would have been a step too far for our ambitious Arabs. Such a move would likely have sparked a revolt in their eastern territories of Syria, the Levant, and Egypt. With all of their armies in Western Europe, such a revolt would have been successful. Rather than returning to the fold of Constantinople the Copts of Egypt would likely have created their own kingdom. They had long been ostracized by Constantinople for following Miaphyisitism, a Christian sect deemed a heresy nearly 200 years prior to the Arab invasions.

With refugees from the east to bolster their armies in Western Europe, the Muslims certainly would have been able to hang onto Spain and Gaul along with North Africa. A full conquest of Italy also seems likely, as a Byzantium without Egypt would be in total crisis mode, struggling to feed Constantinople, much less regain loss territories to the West. So there you have it, Western Europe and western North Africa is eventually Islamicized. The Christianization of Anglo-Saxon Britain is in doubt, with missionaries coming only from Christian Ireland and the Brittons in the west. Whether Britain too would eventually become Muslim, or if the Anglo-Saxon Gods could hold on is anyone's guess.

In the East, Christianity reigns supreme in Egypt, in Anatolia, and in the Balkans, as well as in Ethiopia, which was the first country to convert to Christianity. The Arabian Peninsula is still a Muslim holdout, and likely to remain one, so long as the western Muslims continue the Hajj to Mecca and Medina. In Persia the state religion is still Zoroastrianism, though Manichaeism (a new religion drawing from Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Buddhism) could supplant Ahura Mazda.

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So that is that. Sorry about the lapse in posting; I've been quite busy. Expect the next Alternate History Podcast sometime this week.