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June 27, 2012

WHAT DIDN’T HAPPEN – ALTERNATIVE HISTORIES

My followers know that I usually blog on economics and politics as a real world pragmatist. Sometimes, however, it may be instructive to look to what might have been to sharpen one’s understanding of what is. The following is such an attempt to understand and explain what is not. The background information for this essay was made privy to me by my friend and former archivist of a presidential library. It is entitled “FDR’s Near-Assassination in Miami’s Bay Front Park,” authored by Harold Ivan Smith, and published by Baywood Publishing Co., Inc. (2012). (Brief quotations from this essay are in “quotes” in the following effort.)

 I have known forever that FDR was almost assassinated after he was elected president but before he was sworn into office. He was in Miami fishing and was in the back of a convertible (shades of Kennedy!) when some crackpot unemployed bricklayer shot at him. Fortunately, a lady named Lillian Swan hit his arm with her handbag and the assassin missed. He instead shot Mayor (of Chicago) Tony Cermack, who was standing alongside the president-elect. The gunman, Zangara, said he was only sorry that he failed to kill Roosevelt. When Cermack died, Zangara was tried for first degree murder in Florida, sentenced and died in the electric chair 33 days later. There were concerns that crowds would break down the jailhouse doors and lynch him, “a common practice in Florida.” Florida officials would not allow photographers at the execution by electric chair and indeed the execution was held in secret. Zangara’s final words were “Hit the button.”

I never knew these details. It makes one think of what some people are writing these days – alternative history. There are books out now that give you a taste of what history might have been, like one celebrating Hitler’s 75th birthday. It assumes that Germany won WW II and that they are in a Cold War with the United States, both too strong and well armed to attack one another (shades of the Soviet standoff). There is also an alternative history out which assumes that Kennedy was not shot. Would we have Medicare and Medicaid (both via LBJ)? Would we have had an escalation of the war in Viet Nam? Who can know? (You can write up quite a history if you can assume things that didn’t happen; indeed we are proficient in writing questionable histories about things that did happen – see varying versions of the American Civil War, the Russian version of World War II et al.)

To the point – what if Lillian Swan had not hit Zangara’s arm with her handbag? Our president would probably have been John Nance Garner of Texas, former Speaker of the House, who really didn’t want the job of vice president, comparing it to a “bucket of warm spit.” Though a Democrat, Garner was a right wing conservative and was picked by Roosevelt to “balance the ticket.” He was against all forms of deficit spending and “rarely originated innovative ideas;” he did not “possess oratorical or persuasive skills to inspire public confidence.” He even refused to campaign with Roosevelt in 1932. To top it off, “he did not even learn of the attempt on Roosevelt’s life until the following day because he never accepted telephone calls after 9:00 P.M.”  

He could scarcely be more unlike Roosevelt, the smiling, back-slapping, pro-people president with whom we were blessed at a critical time in our history. (He was and is and will always be my idol.)

Reagan was shot a few months after taking office. What would America look like if he had not survived? When you can write your own histories given the freedom of “What Ifs,” you can come up with all kinds of outcomes. What about the assassination of Israel’s prime minister (Rabin) who was on the verge of coming up with a peace treaty with the PLO when he was shot and killed (not by an Arab, but by a right wing Jew who was unhappy with Rabin’s political stances)? What if Hitler had been killed in Munich? Would the Nazi party’s response have been one of “unparalleled chaos and the great pogrom which no authority in the world could prevent,” as predicted by the police commissioner of Munich at the time?

Assassinating political leaders or even trying to assassinate them can have profound political and economic consequences, and there are many such examples throughout history. This is never the way to go. As a lifelong Democrat, I see republicans as opponents, not enemies. This is a democracy, and my opponents have every right to believe and act as they do, subject only to the constraints of the Constitution and laws of this great land, as all of us are so constrained.

History can be so interesting if you can make up the facts! How about a “what if” history that George Bush lost both elections (which he probably did in the real world, incidentally), and try to come up with what would have happened but for the importunities of Rove, Baker and the 5-4 court. I cannot help believing that we would be a far different and far better country and live in a far better world if he hadn’t come on the scene and promptly changed a surplus into deficit, hadn’t given a trillion dollars to the rich and charged it to the deficit, and hadn’t fought two phony wars on a credit card. But who can know? We will never know how Gore and/or Kerry would have performed – history is linear.

To wax philosophical, I am afraid that you readers and I have no alternative histories; there is only one to a customer and we have lived and are living ours. I had a Great Depression and World War II in my personal history, but things after that could have been a whole lot worse (I think, but can never know).

Before you and I complain about our fates, perhaps we should look around. GERALD E

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