What Can We Learn From an Alternate History?

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Jeff Greenfield, senior political correspondent for CBS News and the author of Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan, offers alternate histories of modern American history.

What if things had turned out differently?

Jeff Greenfield has attempted to show how the smallest details in history can (and could have) yield to big changes. He calls it the "butterfly effect." Greenfield said, we can learn something from how history didn't turn out, as well as how it did.

Let's say Gerald Ford had been elected in 1976 instead instead of Jimmy Carter. Greenfield said it wouldn't have taken much for this scenario to play out.

This one is just a case of the slip of the tongue being corrected which changes just enough votes in my scenario to elect Ford. He only needed about a switch of 6,000 votes in Ohio and a few thousand in Mississippi and he would have won the electoral vote.

The "slip of the tongue" Greenfield referred to occurred during a presidential debate between Ford and Carter in 1976. Ford said of Poland and a few other countries in eastern Europe that, "there is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration," he said. Well, he was wrong. (Even when the moderator, Max Frankel gave him a chance to correct himself, he didn't take it.)

So, what if things had gone differently? Here's Greenfield's take.

All he needed to do was say, as for Poland and the other occupied nations, of course they're dominated Mr. Frankel, I'm the commander-in-chief. I know how many Soviet divisions are there, but why are they there? Because of their hearts and minds and souls they, like we, will never concede the moral right of the Soviet empire to dominate them. And what happens? Instead of a week of backing and filling, instead of eastern European immigrants really angry at Ford for not understanding what they had escaped, he recovers. He corrects himself right at that moment, it's not a big deal, that's the important thing, and it just changes a tiny fraction of people's minds enough to get him elected.

In 1979 – in real life – the Middle East was on the hot plate with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, but Greenfield's alternate history has another outcome. To create this alternate history, he conducted many interviews to try and build plausible outcomes. For example:

Brent Scowcroft, who was Ford's national security adviser, said flatly, we never would have let the Shah fall, that Carter was sufficiently consumed by kind of Vietnam guilt or angst as he called it, that he didn't feel that we should be heavy handed. He said, Ford wouldn't have had that problem.

In Greenfield's re-write of this moment in history, the Ayatollah Khomeini is involved in a car crash under mysterious circumstances and he dies. Power is then transferred to Khomeini's more moderate and secular deputy, Montazeri, all of which leads to a different kind of coalition regime. Greenfield says his alternate history isn't too far off-base considering the real circumstances of the time.

You got to remember back in Iran in 1979 it wasn't just the Islamists, it was business people, it was students, it was radical lefties, it was part of the army, all of whom were opposed to the Shah, and my alternate history says okay, he leaves because he has to... but he leaves it in the hands of a very different Iranian government.

In another breakdown of history, Greenfield picked apart a little-remembered assassination attempt on President-elect John F. Kennedy in 1960. In the real history, a suicide bomber sat outside Kennedy's Palm Beach home with a car-load of dynamite, but he didn't detonate the bomb because Jacqueline Kennedy came to the door to see the her husband off to church. The bomber was caught four days later. The Secret Service Chief wrote at the time that the U.S. was only moments away from having the President elect blown to bits.

I was most interested in exploring the possibility that a Cuban missile crisis would develop for slightly different reasons and that in that meeting of people deciding what to do. You would not have had a skeptical John Kennedy and an even more skeptical Robert Kennedy... and then reading through books about Johnson, interviewing one of his top aides and trying to figure out how the character, the personality, the fears of Lyndon Johnson would have affected his decision-making process at the most crucial time in the last half century.

So, what should we take from these alternate histories? Greenfield says we have to remember that our control of how things play out in life and in politics is not a tight grip.

My feeling is two-fold, one is to understand that the efforts to impose these broad patterns of how history develops, that effort needs to be footnoted heavily by the notion that fate plays a heavy role. And the other part about that is...that you need to be aware of the contingency of history just as you need to be aware of it in your own life. There's an old Yiddish proverb, and I think every culture has it. Want to hear God laugh? Make a plan. And so there's a point about this that says, the more I think you know how little history can be controlled, maybe the less effort you think to try to impose your own vision of what history should be.

Ford's famous gaffe: