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For All Nails #93: The Dream and the Nightmare

by Johnny Pez

From the Philadelphia Examiner
May 13, 1974
The Dream and the Nightmare: Robert Sobel's Alternate America
by John Dickinson Pez

For anyone who makes history his profession, one of the constant sources of mental stimulation is the recurring question: what if? What if the Moors had beaten the Franks at Tours? What if the Spanish Armada had landed in England? What if Zangora had not killed Pedro Hermión? For every turning point in human history, there is the question of what the consequences would have been had the path not taken been, in fact, taken.

For both North Americans and Mexicans, probably the most popular What If of all is, what if the Continental Congress had won the War of the American Rebellion? Practically every history of that war raises the question. However, few histories do more than simply mention the possibility, and none has attempted more than a few brief generalizations regarding the consequences of an independent American republic. Until now.

This month sees the publication of Robert Sobel's For All Time: If Gates Had Won at Saratoga, a fully realized imaginary history of a United States of America that secures its independence. Not just an exercise in historical speculation, Sobel's book takes the form of a scholarly history of the USA, written by a historian native to that country (in fact, written by an alternate version of Sobel himself). From the opening Preface (where the alternate Sobel thanks imaginary American historians, public officials and military officers for reviewing his manuscript) to the concluding bibliography (of imaginary historical monographs and papers that serve as the alternate Sobel's source material) and index (listing the vast array of imaginary people, places and things mentioned in the text), the illusion is maintained that one is reading a history book from an alternate present.

Although Sobel is primarily a business historian, having authored The Epic Age of North American Industry and Men of Great Wealth: Operations of the Kramer-Benedict Combine, he is best known to the general public for For Want of a Nail ..., a dual history of the USM and CNA. A comparison between For Want of a Nail and For All Time is apt, for both works begin at the same historical point: the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years' War between Great Britain and France. From the beginning of For All Time, Sobel is at pains to give his work a tone commensurate with its purported origins. His account of the origins of the American Rebellion contains neither the defensiveness typical of Mexican accounts, nor the more-in-sorrow-than-anger air of North American histories (including his own earlier effort). Instead, the attitude of the author of For All Time is triumphalist. The errors of judgment of the succeeding British ministries of the 1760s and 1770s are given a sinister cast, paralleling the conspiratorial bent of contemporary colonial accounts. The ultimate outbreak of rebellion is seen not only as inevitable, but also as an unmistakably positive development, as though the whole of prior colonial history had been nothing more than a prelude to revolution.

When Sobel launches For All Time into imaginary history, his point of departure is a well-chosen one: the Battle of Saratoga. History records that General Burgoyne's victory was a narrow one that could easily have gone the other way given minor changes in the rebel strategy. Sobel provides the army of Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold with those minor changes, and they triumph over Burgoyne. A British army has surrendered in the field, an almost unheard-of disaster. The centers of rebellion in New England and Virginia remain in contact, and General Howe's capture of Philadelphia is robbed of its significance. George Washington's surprise attack on Howe's army in the Battle of Germantown is seen as a daring near-success rather than a final failure, and by the spring of 1778 Benjamin Franklin succeeds in persuading King Louis XVI to ally himself with the American rebels and declare war on Great Britain. The war continues for several years after its conclusion in actual history. In the end, the surrender of a second British army to the rebels in 1781 results in the fall of the North ministry, and by 1783 the British government has recognized the independence of the American republic.

It is at this point that Sobel suffers his first major loss of nerve. Rather than extrapolate a likely future for the newly-independent United States of America based on the trends current in the 1770s, and especially based on the government established by the Continental Congress in 1777 with the Articles of Confederation, Sobel begins to twist events to produce an outcome paralleling actual history. The revolutionary ardor of his American republic is quickly dissipated, and a reaction sets in that results in the adoption in 1787 of a new Constitution which has more in common with the historical Mexican Constitution than with the idealistic principles that produced the rebellion. Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry become marginal figures, Jefferson is eclipsed by Hamilton, and a strangely reactionary George Washington becomes the new nation's leader.

The result is a peculiar amalgam of the historical USM and CNA. Under its Hamiltonian constitution, the USA lurches from reaction to radicalism and back again. An undeclared naval war with France is followed by an ill-timed declaration of war against Great Britain. The Hamiltonians establish a national bank, which is then allowed to die by a Jeffersonian regime, then resurrected by the Hamiltonians, then allowed to die again by the Jeffersonians.

This national "bipolar disorder" is reflected in the personal relationship between Jefferson and John Adams -- friends at the Congress, rivals in Europe, bitter enemies as leaders of rival parties, then friends after retiring from public life. We are expected to believe that the egalitarian antimonarchist Adams becomes a tool of the mercantile elite who seeks to stifle free expression. We are also expected to believe that the firebrand revolutionary and polemicist Jefferson evolves into a dedicated pacifist who allows his nation's defences to decay into uselessness, while simultaneously being a great statesman who negotiates the peaceful purchase of the Vandalias from Sobel's Fanchon-analogue. Finally, history records that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were hanged within hours of each other in January 1779. In For All Time they still die within hours of each other, but Sobel has it occur on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. (Sobel takes advantage of an opportunity to correct one of the minor errors found in the first edition of For Want of a Nail, when he correctly states that the Declaration of Independence was ratified on the 2nd of July 1776 and signed on the 4th, rather than vice versa.)

In Europe, meanwhile, the success of the American rebellion inspires an uprising in France in 1789, which is all-too-obviously based on the historical French Revolution of 1880, ending with a more successful version of Henri Fanchon who manages to conquer most of Europe before finally being vanquished in 1815. Symptomatic of Sobel's unwillingness to depart too radically from actual history is the appearance of historical figures such as Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Thomas Edison, despite the decades of altered history that precede their births. Another instance of this failure of imagination is Sobel's overwhelming use of our own world's technical and social terminology: telegraph, telephone, phonograph, radio, dynamite, electronic, submarine, white- and blue-collar, GNP, guerrilla, scientist. Sobel's examples of alternate vocabulary are few: automobile for locomobile, airplane for airmobile, tank for terramobile, television for vitavision.

Despite these deficiencies, however, For All Time has its charms. Particularly engaging is Sobel's portrait of the American government in the first half of the 19th century, where notable North Americans such as Van Buren, Calhoun and Webster rub elbows with Mexican statesmen such as Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. (Amusingly, Sobel depicts Adams as an enemy of Jackson, while Van Buren is Jackson's handpicked successor as President of the USA.) Sobel's admiration for Jackson shows clearly: not only does he defeat regular British troops in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, he voluntarily lays down the office of President after only two terms.

As Sobel's history moves into the industrial age, however, the author's distaste for the Mexican elements of his imaginary USA becomes ever more prominent. Slavery persists into the 1860s, and its abolition combines the worst features of the Calles regime and the Rocky Mountain War, as secession by the slave-owners leads to catastrophic civil war, and the victory of the abolitionists is overturned by corrupt politicians who allow the freed slaves to be terrorized into a state of debt-peonage by their former owners. Subsequent attempts by Negroes to regain their freedom are invariably met with renewed oppression, leading to a re-creation of Mexico's Rainbow War in the USA.

The manner in which Sobel deals with the abolition of slavery in For All Time brings up the related topic of woman suffrage. One of the most serious criticisms directed against For Want of a Nail was the total absence of any discussion of the suffragist movement in the CNA. The reason for Sobel's reticence is clear enough -- embarrassment over the role of his hero Ezra Gallivan in delaying the enactment of woman suffrage for twenty years. Rather than discuss what was probably Gallivan's least attractive characteristic -- his misogynistic attitudes towards women -- Sobel skipped over the whole matter, relegating the enfranchisement of women to a single short sentence in a footnote on page 85.

In For All Time, Sobel makes up for his past reticence with a vengeance, and in a most peculiar way. In Sobel's USA, the suffragist movement is combined with the temperance movement. Consequently, when women in the USA do finally win the vote, their enfranchisement comes on the heels of an utterly bizarre constitutional amendment banning the sale of alcohol -- a particularly egregious example of misplaced idealism in a book brimming with examples of misplaced idealism.

The twentieth century sees Europe torn apart in a series of bloody wars that give rise to monstrous ideologies -- although, as usual, the ideologies bear an all-too-close resemblance to those of our own world. The class-based socialist theories of Marx are combined with the emotional fervor of Neiderhofferism and the stereotypical tyrannical brutality of Tsarist Russia to produce "Communism". The racialist policies of modern-day Victoria are taken to an absurd extreme in Germany to produce "Nazism". Fanchonism is recreated intact in Italy and given the slightly altered name of "Fascism".

At this point, Sobel gives over all pretense of plausibility. It takes just twenty years for Germany (aided by the abysmally stupid policies of the British and French) to rise from the ashes of a terrible defeat to launch a war of conquest rivalling that of our own world's Global War. Japan inexplicably veers away from democracy into a dark vortex of militarism, imperialism and cruelty that climaxes in an unprovoked, suicidal attack on the USA, a nation with twice its population and eight times its industrial capacity.

From there, the world of For All Time becomes an escalating nighmare. So frequently do governments slaughter millions of their own citizens that Sobel coins one of his rare neologisms to describe it: genocide. The discovery of atomic weapons in the 1940s results in their widespread use by various nations against armed opponents both foreign and domestic. The end of colonialism in Africa sees the continent dominated by the Union of South Africa, another Victoria analogue based, inexplicably, on our world's Cape Kingdom. By the end of Sobel's history in 1973, Europe is reduced to cannibalism, Asia is trapped under a brutal Communist dictatorship, and the USA is consumed by incessant racial strife.

Robert Sobel has gained a popular reputation as anti-Mexican, based largely on For Want of a Nail. In For All Time he makes it clear that that reputation is deserved. Sobel has taken the stereotypical Mexican traits of militarism, racialism, and irresponsible idealism, and made them the defining characteristics of an imaginary dystopia. His USA is meant to be an indictment of the Mexican national character, and of the revolutionary ideals that gave rise to it. In an age when national coexistence has become a matter of human survival rather than lofty idealism, For All Time represents a step in the wrong direction.

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John Dickinson Pez is Professor of North American History at Webster University.

Forward to FAN #94: My Father Was a Gambler Down in Georgia.

Forward to 8 June 1974: Scenes From a Wedding.

Forward to Robert Sobel: Remembrance Day.

Forward to John Dickinson Pez: Rogue Asset.

Return to For All Nails.