First causes: How history could be different
Some historians believe that history is a continuum, a chain of events with one event leading to the next. Other historians think history consists of unconnected acts.
One of the facets of the continuum approach is the ability to play “what if?” or “if only.” It allows us to track backward in time in an attempt to find the “first cause” or, as lawyers say, the “proximate cause” of subsequent events.
In his The Utility of Force, British General Rupert Smith suggests that America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was caused by the German defeat of the French during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. As a result of the Franco-Prussian War, France lost its provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Embarrassed by the loss of Alsace and Lorraine, the French compensated by pouring enormous energy into the colonization of Africa and Indo-China.
Skip forward in time to the end of World War II when Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson would try to save the French bacon in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Thus, General Smith argues that the loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871 was the proximate cause of the loss of 58, 178 American lives from 1959 to 1975.
In 1871, the crowning of Kaiser Wilhelm II as the German Emperor in the Palace of Versailles embarrassed the French even more, causing the French to rearm – a rearmament the Germans would use 43 years later as one of their excuses for starting for World War I.
Along with Lorraine, France lost more than Quiche; it lost many of its coal mines and much of its industrial capacity. During the run up to World War I, Prussian military planners knew Germany’s pre-World War I industrial capacity (even with the addition of Lorraine) was only sufficient for about 18 months of a war against France, England and Russia. If the Germans had not already possessed the coal mines of Lorraine, the Germans might not have invaded Belgium and France in 1914.
What if the British Expedition Force (BEF), sent, in 1914, to rescue the French from the German onslaught through Belgium, had landed on the Germany’s North Sea Coast instead of across the English Channel at Le Havre? Even though Kaiser Wilhelm II had finished building his High Seas Fleet, the British Royal Navy was still, by far, the more powerful navy. Following the Battle of Jutland, the Kaiser was so concerned about further loses that he confined his beloved High Seas Fleet to German ports.
Instead, the Germans made the mistake of using submarines to sink merchant ships, an act a freedom-of-the-seas, maritime power such as the United States could not ignore. Thus, it could be argued that the German use of submarines was the proximate cause of the American intervention which then led to the Allied defeat of Germany.
The Royal Navy could have landed the BEF, say, at Cuxhaven north of Wilhelmshaven and Bremerhaven. That would have turned the right flank of the German armies massed along the Belgian border. If the Germans persisted with their planned invasion across neutral Belgium, the BEF could not only have cut the German supply lines and its communications with Berlin, the BEF could shortly have been in possession of the Ruhr – Germany’s primary industrial base.
Moreover, if the BEF had come down from the North Sea, the French fixation on responding to a German attack by counterattacking to retake Alsace and Lorraine (Plan 17) would likely have succeeded in not just regaining the coal mines of Lorraine but taking the industrial Saar region away from the Germans as well. If the Germans had lost the Ruhr, the Saar and Lorraine, the Allied victory would have come much, much earlier.
Looking at today’s headlines, the Obama White House is sounding: Retreat. Soon, we, like the French and British of yesteryear, may be playing a lot of “what if” and “if only.”
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist and a featured commentator for USA Today, studied at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. Dr. Hamilton is a former assistant professor of political science and history at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
©2009. William Hamilton.