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'What Might Have Been' History Documented

Handwritten notes, government memos span incidents that would have changed the world as we know it. Events include premature death of Churchill, D-day failure.

November 06, 2000|JILL SERJEANT | REUTERS

Imagine a world in which the D-day invasion was a disaster, the Apollo 11 astronauts never made it home from the moon and Winston Churchill was killed by a taxi in New York eight years before World War II began.

Mere fantasy? Think again.

* Churchill in 1931 referred to his "miraculous escape" from death after he was run over by a taxi in New York.

* Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower carried with him a handwritten note shouldering the blame for the failure of the 1944 Allied landings in Normandy.

* President Nixon was ready with one of the most powerful speeches never delivered on the loss of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969. Written by his speech writer, William Safire, it inspired the latest addition to the school of "what ifs" and "if onlys" that has spilled over from science fiction and movies into the world of scholars.

"Almost History" (Hyperion), compiled by Roger Bruns, deputy director for the National Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives, is a collection of memos, notes and government documents covering some 80 incidents that would have changed the world as we know it.

"People have always been fascinated with what could have happened or what might have been," Bruns said. "What this book is trying to do is provide physical evidence that things were close to being different."

In some cases the document itself played the vital role in life-changing events--like the wad of now-bloodstained notes carried by ex-President Theodore Roosevelt that stopped an assassin's bullet aimed at his heart on Oct. 14, 1912.

Then there was the brief letter from the mother of young Tennessee Republican Harry Burn urging her son to ratify the women's suffrage amendment in August 1920.

"Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. [Carrie Chapman] Catt put the 'rat' in ratification," wrote Febb Ensminger Burn on Aug. 17. The next day Burn reversed his stance and the amendment passed by a single vote.

The book contains records of the Kennedy administration's secret talks with Cuba aimed at rapprochement in June 1963. And in October 1963, Kennedy approved military recommendations for an initial withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. military personnel from Vietnam by the end of the year.

Six weeks later, Kennedy and his secret plans were dead, and five years later, the American military presence in Vietnam had risen from 16,300 to more than 500,000.

Along with the better-known twists of history--such as CIA reports detailing bungled attempts to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro with poisoned cigars, mobsters and booby-trapped beaches--the book contains some lesser-known but equally bizarre might-have-beens.

In July 1881, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell had the device that should have saved the life of wounded President James Garfield. But his experimental metal detector failed to locate the bullet in Garfield's body because the president was lying on an innovative coiled spring mattress.

"Metal mattress coils, it could be argued, made a successful presidential assassin," Bruns said.

Had Churchill not lived to fight another day in 1931, the outcome of World War II could have been drastically different without the determined British prime minister.

Only days after Germany's surrender in 1945, Churchill was drawing up detailed plans for Operation Unthinkable: a world war pitting Britain, the United States and defeated Germany against the Soviet Union, to begin in July 1945.

But less than two months after the plan was prepared, Churchill was ousted by a British electorate exhausted by the war and clamoring for social change.

Astronaut John Glenn adopted a more conciliatory tone when preparing for the worst during his historic manned spaceflight in 1962.

Concerned that his capsule might splash down in remote South Pacific seas, scaring local people, Glenn carried a note in several languages: "I am a stranger. I come in peace. Take me to your leader and there will be a massive reward for you in eternity."

He never had to use the note, but the precarious nature of early space missions is reflected in the speech Safire drafted for Nixon to deliver if the module carrying the first men to walk on the moon had failed to join up with the command module for the return flight to Earth.

"That speech was what inspired this book. It is probably one of the most powerful speeches ever written and not delivered. It is a speech that was lost to history, and it also had a poignancy because of what happened in the 1986 Challenger tragedy," Bruns said.

It read, in part: "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

"These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. . . . For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind."

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