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Roger Bruns, Deputy Executive Director for the National Publications and Records Commission at the National Archive, paid special attention when William Safire wrote several years ago about the speech he had prepared for President Nixon to deliver in case the Apollo 11 astronauts, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, had to be left on the Moon.  It occurred to Mr. Bruns that the historical archives were chock full of such documents, which open out into vistas of "What If?"  The collection he has put together here is fascinating and raises all kinds of questions about how much different history might have been had circumstances been altered slightly, and, as some of the documents reveal, how close we sometimes came to major alterations.

Every reader will have their own favorites from this generous selection, here are mine :

Safire's Apollo 11 Speech

    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 Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no
    hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind
    in their sacrifice.

    These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal:
    the search for truth and understanding.

    They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned
    by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they
    will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the
    unknown.

    In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one;

    In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the
    constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are
    epic men of flesh and blood.

    Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not
    be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost
    in our hearts.

    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.

George Washington's Response to the Newburgh Conspiracy

In Newburgh, New York, on March 15, 1783 George Washington faced down an incipient rebellion among his officers who, disgruntled about lack of back pay and the slow pace of peace negotiations, were considering removing him from power and taking over the country.  Washington summoned them and prepared to read a letter responding to the concerns that had been raised in an anonymous letter.  in a piece of brilliant stagecraft, the vain General removed a pair of eyeglasses, which most had never seen him wear, and said : "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."  The coup was over.  This much of the story is pretty well known, but Bruns reproduces here the letter that Washington proceeded to read and which is almost as affecting as the gesture.

The Munson Report

To me the most heartbreaking document is the excerpted Munson Report, an intelligence document prepared at FDR's request which makes it clear that Japanese Americans posed no threat to national security in the pending war with Japan.  This dark moment in history is made all the more troubling in light of this document.

Operation Unthinkable

This is the most thought provoking document, an excerpt from a secret war plan commissioned by Winston Churchill to study the feasibility of invading the USSR at the conclusion of WWII.  Of history's many lost opportunities, perhaps none were more costly in terms of human life, economic stagnation, and moral quiescence than the failure to pursue this course.
 

The book is replete with such moments and memoranda, many of them equally compelling to consider.  The introductory essays are informative but brief, setting the stage for the document to follow without burying the reader in unnecessary detail.  It is great fun and subversively informative.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -INTERVIEW : Editor Roger Bruns Discusses 'Almost History' (September 26, 2000, CNN)
    -BOOK SITE : Almost History : Close Calls, Plan B's and Twists of Fate in America's Past By Roger Bruns (FSB Associates)
    -PROFILE : Author explores the flip side of American history (PATRICK T. REARDON, Chicago Tribune)
    -"FATE HAS ORDAINED"  If Death had come to the Moon
    -ESSAY : Operation Unthinkable : Britain's plan to bomb the Soviet oil fields at Baku illustrated Winston Churchill's lack of faith in the Soviet Union's ability to defeat Adolf Hitler--and the suspicion and subterfuge that would eventually lead to the Cold War. (Patrick R. Osborn, History Net)
    -EXCERPTS : The Munson Report : In October and November of 1941, Special Representative of the State Department Curtis B. Munson, under Roosevelt's orders, carried out an intelligence gathering investigation on the loyalty of Japanese Americans
    -ESSAY : The Rise and Fall of the Newburgh Conspiracy: How General Washington and his Spectacles Saved the Republic (George L. Marshall, Jr., Early America)
    -ETEXTS : Newburgh Letter & Washington's Response (Early America)
    -REVIEW : of Almost History by Roger Bruns A short tale of history that never happened  (Jill Serjeant, Reuters)
    -REVIEW : of THE DAMNDEST RADICAL The Life and World of Ben Reitman, Chicago's Celebrated Social Reformer, Hobo King, and Whorehouse Physician. By Roger A. Bruns (Patrick Clinton, NY Times Book Review)

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