The Roads Not Taken: Part One

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Alternate History! Wheeeeeee!

For every decision made, there was an alternative. For every plan put into action, for every policy enacted or project begun, there was another option that was put aside instead. History is littered with the desiccated remains of these alternatives, each one bearing within it the seed of another history or timeline. Their details are unknowable, but we can often catch glimpses of what might have been. This of course is the basis of alternate history, one of my favorite genres of fiction. However, alternate history scenarios usually start from a new reality and work their way backwards to a divergent point in time that could have created it. ‘What if the South won the Civil War?’ ‘What if the Nazis won World War II?’ In this series, I’d like to do something a little different.

Instead of looking at different ways events could have turned out, I’ll be examining specific, concrete historical proposals that would have radically changed the direction of history but, for whatever reason, were never carried out. Each of these schemes were put forward at historical junctures, were examined and considered, and then–cast by the wayside. Usually for good reason, if I’m being honest. In today’s edition, we’ll be looking at proposals that were unknown until their recent rediscovery, decades after their creation. I hope you find these as fascinating as I do.

Operationsplan III: The Imperial German Invasion of America

Who Proposed It: Kaiser Wilhelm II, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, German General Staff

When: 1897–1903

When It Was Found: 1970, German military archives in Freiburg im Breisgau

What It Was:

It’s mostly been forgotten today, but in the early years of the 20th century, a fierce rivalry grew up between the United States and Imperial Germany. Both nations were industrial powerhouses, rising late to compete on the world stage with the Great Powers of Britain and France and Russia. Both desired to build a colonial empire. And both found themselves scrabbling for the scraps left behind by their more established rivals. This led to a series of minor crises around the turn of the century, in the Philippines in 1898,  in Venezuela, 1902-1903, and most notably in Samoa in 1889. There, the two powers came closest to open war, with each side dispatching squadrons of warships to a standoff in Apia harbor. Thankfully, a mighty typhoon obliterated the rival flotillas before hostilities could erupt. (Samoa would be peacefully partitioned in 1899). It was against this backdrop that Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered his General Staff to draw up plans for an invasion of the United States in 1897.

Not even the notoriously bellicose Wilhelm believed that he could successfully conquer America. Instead, an invasion would be launched in order to secure leverage in a colonial dispute. Germany had areas of interest in both the Caribbean and Pacific, and the sudden rise of American power in these regions following the annexation of Hawaii and the Spanish-American War threatened these. At the Kaiser’s orders, low-level German officers began considering ways in which military strength could be used to reverse such dangers in 1987. The final version of the plan, designated Operationsplan III, was completed in 1903.

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The Plan of Attack

In the event of hostilities, the plan called for a three-pronged strike at the heart of American power. First, it would be the task of the Imperial High Seas Fleet to seek out and destroy the American Atlantic Fleet, securing  control of the sea lanes around the east coast. Initial drafts of the plan foresaw a surprise attack on the Norfolk navy yards as the initial blow, while later versions were more generalized in their expectations. Still, a battle in the vicinity of Hampton Roads seems likely, as that was still the beating heart of American maritime power. In addition, a decisive victory there would allow the Kaiserliche Marine to enter Chesapeake Bay, threatening Washington D.C itself. But however it occurred, the naval victory would clear the way for the ground assault. 

Once the U.S Navy was no longer a factor, two German expeditionary forces would arrive. German troops would first be disembarked on the peninsula of Sandy Hook, in New Jersey. While the soldiers of the Imperial Army built up a base camp and staging area, warships would enter New York harbor and commence the reduction of the fortifications in Brooklyn and Staten Island that protected the city. (Fun Fact! I’ve driven by both of those literally hundreds of times in my life. I find that a little surreal). Once the way was cleared, Manhattan would be brought under either bombardment or the threat of it. It was hoped that this would cause a panic, allowing the city to be rapidly occupied. Meanwhile, a second flotilla would be approaching Boston. Here, two landing spots were chosen, the Manomet Point lighthouse station and the town of Rockpoint. Once beachheads were established and defenses built, the two landing forces would converge on Boston, seizing it in a pincer maneuver. At this point, with two of the United State’s largest cities under occupation and the American Navy crushed, Imperial diplomats were to approach President Theodore Roosevelt and lay out their demands for a military base in either Cuba or Puerto Rico, as well as possible concessions in the Pacific.

Was It Likely:

There is no evidence that the Kaiser or the General Staff ever considered activating Operationsplan III. However, the possibility was taken seriously enough that in 1901, Lieutenant Hubert von Rebeur-Paschwitz, the German naval attaché in Washington D.C, secretly traveled to Cape Cod to personally scout out possible landing sites. Within High Command, the idea had the support of Admiral Tirpitz, who wanted a more active colonial policy in order to encourage a stronger German focus on the navy. However, the Chief of the General Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen (yeah, that guy), thought it was a ridiculous exercise in fancy, and that Germany simply did not possess the shipping power to support such an operation. Still, if the Samoa or Venezuela Crises had erupted into war, it’s likely that at least some form of the plan would have been enacted.

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I’m sure the negotiations will go splendidly…

What Would Have Happened:

A German tactical victory was plausible, though unlikely. A German strategic victory was extraordinarily unlikely. If the German Empire had been able to either secure supply bases in the Western Hemisphere or a large enough supply fleet, than the Kaiserliche Marine could probably have defeated the American fleet. During World War One, the High Seas Fleet more than held its own against the Royal Navy, a much more powerful and experienced fleet than the U.S.N. If the amphibious landings were successfully carried out, then the German Army was probably capable to meeting its initial objectives. As Gallipoli and the 1898 U.S landings in Cuba show, amphibious assaults in the early 20th century often proved disastrous, but it was Imperial Germany who, in 1917 during Operation Albion, laid the groundwork for D-Day. Once ashore, the elite Prussian professionals should have had no trouble crushing the tiny volunteer U.S army.

At least initially. The entire German plan rested on America backing down after suffering an overwhelming defeat. As history shows, this is unlikely. Germany had nowhere near enough troops to successfully pacify even New England and the Midwest, let alone the rest of the country. But without doing that, it’s hard to see how the American ability to resist is broken. The United Sates was large enough that the loss of two pivotal ports would not cripple its trade, and there was more than enough industrial might in America by then to arm and equip a truly massive force. As the war goes on, the U.S army would grow more and more experienced, and Imperial Germany would have to pour more and more manpower and supplies down it’s tenuous trans-Atlantic chain just to maintain its beachheads. Eventually, it’s likely that either France, Russia, or both decide take advantage of the favorable situation and the First World War kicks off a few years early, with the same unfortunate results for Germany.

Guy Mollet’s Gambit: The Franco-British Union

Who Proposed It: Prime Minister of France Guy Mollet

When: September, 1956

When It Was Found: 2007, British National Archives

What It Was:

In the fall of 1956, Great Britain and France made their last grab at maintaining Great Power status in the post-WWII era. That July, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt had unilaterally nationalized the Suez Canal, seizing  what had once been the crown jewel of the British Empire. Since India had been given independence in 1947, it was clear to all that Britain’s power was in decline, but as long as they maintained control over certain strategic bases and terrorizes, global influence of a sort could still be theirs. Since the end of World War II, Britain had been playing a game of consolidation, abandoning commitments and colonies too expensive to maintain, refocusing on defending only what was vital. The Suez Canal certainly qualified as that. France was also eager to take action. Egypt was supporting anti-french resistance in Algeria, and the French were unhappy to see Nasser’s regime grow stronger. Israel, eager to see a renewed European presence on their southern flank became the third member of the alliance.

In October 1956, Israel launched Operation Kadesh, a major invasion of the Sinai Peninsula. This was followed up swiftly by British and French paratrooper landings along the canal. Within weeks, the allies had secured control of their objectives, but all this military glory swiftly came undone in the political sphere. The British and French controlled Suez but the Egyptian forces had been able to render it unusable before their defeat. Meanwhile, President Eisenhower, who viewed the entire fiasco as an embarrassment to the United States, issued an ultimatum to all three nations, demanding their withdrawal. By the spring of 1957, the canal was back in Egyptian hands, and Great Britain’s pretensions of World Power had been crushed for good.

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The Anglo-French Imperium, 1956

That September, as the Western Allies prepared their assault, Prime Minister Guy Mollet of France approached his British counterpart, Sir Anthony Eden with an startling  proposal. If Britain and France were going to be able to successfully pull this off, they would need to stand shoulder to shoulder without division. Therefore, why not make it official? Mollet proposed an immediate political union between France and Britain, with a common citizenship and (presumably) universal franchise, joint military structure, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as singular head of state. If this was going too far for Eden, then his second proposal was that France merely become a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Sadly, the details of this proposal have been lost, but one can imagine the general idea. Both European powers had been steadily losing ground for a decade at that point. With their diplomatic and military forces combined,  a F.B.U could conceivably have better resisted American pressure to back down from Suez, pushing through their objectives. In the long term, it would be hoped that their combined economic might could  help stem the tide of decolonization and perhaps even allow the Union to become a third axis of power to rival both the USSR and the USA.

Alas for Mollet’s hopes, Eden’s cabinet was unenthusiastic about the idea, and after the failures in the Sinai it was forgotten about. Instead of a Franco-British Union, France turned its attention to a European Union, signing the Treaty of Rome in 1958, and entering partnership with it’s historic enemy Germany instead.

Was It Likely:

“If his demand had been made official, Mollet would have been brought to trial for high treason.” — Former Minister of the Interior Charles Psaqua, 2007

What Would Have Happened:

I judge it extremely unlikely that such an amalgamation would have been received positively in either Parliament. But presuming it did somehow come to pass, the effects would be……interesting. Let’s look at how it might have affected European policy, colonial policy, and the Cold War.

It’s extremely unlikely that a European Union comes into existence in a world where France and Britain unite, especially if the Union is subsequently able to ‘win’ the Suez Crisis. Great Britain’s engagement in the project of European unity had always been half-hearted, a second choice after efforts to maintain global dominance had failed. It’s possible of course, that federation with France has the opposite effect, drawing Britain into existing arrangements like the European Coal & Steel Community. But we forget at out peril that in 1956, France had by no means given up on it’s own world empire. Indochina had been withdrawn from mere years before, and the war in Algeria raged fiercely. I doubt that a Franco-British Union would deliberately antagonize West Germany or Italy, but I suspect that it would be focusing much more on trying to use it’s own global free market to entice colonies into staying than it would be on building new institutions in Europe. However, if such a Union proved successful, any later attempts to create a European Union would quite likely go much farther than anything we’ve seen. A true United States of Europe would not be out of the question.

I don’t think the Franco-British Union would have been able to stop decolonization, but I expect they would try. Britain began pulling out of Africa in earnest in 1957, I suspect in this would London-Paris is much, much less conciliatory towards independence groups. The Union would undoubtedly try and continue their real life anti-decolonization policies, a mix of military oppression and economic enticements, but at a much more intense level, and with much less reluctance to use military force. The end result would probably not be very different, but we might have seen colonial wars dragging on into the 1970s and 1980s.

Historically, the United States was decidedly unenthusiastic about its allies colonial adventures, seeing them as wasting resources better spent protecting Europe from the USSR and providing propaganda fodder to the Communists. Undoubtedly, a Franco-British Union would remain more-or-less aligned with the USA, but we can expect a much less subservient posture. The F.B.U would be far more economically and military independent of the United States, willing to challenge its dictates and oppose its will. The result would be probably not be a three-way Cold War, but it would be a NATO and a West in which there is a great deal of dissent among the leadership about foreign policy. This is especially true if De Gaulle becomes Prime Minister of the Union in the 1960s. Needless, to say, the transatlantic ‘special relationship’ is hard to imagine in such a world.

Original Version of Map Can Be Found Here

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