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For All Nails #93: The Dream and the Nightmare

(with apologies to Noel and Chet)

From the Philadelphia _Examiner_
13 May 1974

The Dream and the Nightmare: Robert Sobel's Alternate America
by John Dickinson Pez

For anyone who makes history his profession, one of the constant sources of
mental stimulation is the recurring question: what if?  What if the Moors had
beaten the Franks at Tours?  What if the Spanish Armada had landed in
England?  What if Zangora had not killed Pedro Hermión?  For every turning
point in human history, there is the question of what the consequences would
have been had the path not taken been, in fact, taken.

For both North Americans and Mexicans, probably the most popular What If of
all is, what if the Continental Congress had won the War of the American
Rebellion?  Practically every history of that war raises the question.
However, few histories do more than simply mention the possibility, and none
has attempted more than a few brief generalizations regarding the
consequences of an independent American republic.  Until now.

This month sees the publication of Robert Sobel's _For All Time_, a fully
realized imaginary history of a United States of America that secures its
independence.  Not just an exercise in historical speculation, Sobel's book
takes the form of a scholarly history of the USA, written by a historian
native to that country (in fact, written by an alternate version of Sobel
himself).  From the opening Preface (where the alternate Sobel thanks
imaginary American historians, public officials and military officers for
reviewing his manuscript) to the concluding bibliography (of imaginary
historical monographs and papers that serve as the alternate Sobel's source
material) and index (listing the vast array of imaginary people, places and
things mentioned in the text), the illusion is maintained that one is reading
a history book from an alternate present.

Although Sobel is primarily a business historian, having authored _The Epic
Age of North American Industry_ and _Men of Great Wealth: Operations of the
Kramer-Benedict Combine_, he is best known to the general public for _For
Want of a Nail_, a dual history of the USM and CNA.  A comparison between
_For Want of a Nail_ and _For All Time_ is apt, for both works begin at the
same historical point: the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years' War
between Great Britain and France.  From the beginning of _For All Time_,
Sobel is at pains to give his work a tone commensurate with its purported
origins.  His account of the origins of the American Rebellion contains
neither the defensiveness typical of Mexican accounts, nor the
more-in-sorrow-than-anger air of North American histories (including his own
earlier effort).  Instead, the attitude of the author of _For All Time_ is
triumphalist.  The errors of judgment of the succeeding British ministries of
the 1760s and 1770s are given a sinister cast, paralleling the conspiratorial
bent of contemporary colonial accounts.  The ultimate outbreak of rebellion
is seen not only as inevitable, but also as an unmistakably _positive_
development, as though the whole of prior colonial history had been nothing
more than a prelude to revolution.

When Sobel launches _For All Time_ into imaginary history, his point of
departure is a well-chosen one: the Battle of Saratoga.  History records that
General Burgoyne's victory was a narrow one that could easily have gone the
other way given minor changes in the rebel strategy.  Sobel provides the army
of Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold with those minor changes, and they
triumph over Burgoyne.  A British army has surrendered in the field, an
almost unheard-of disaster.  The centers of rebellion in New England and
Virginia remain in contact, and General Howe's capture of Philadelphia is
robbed of its significance.  George Washington recoups his reputation with a
surprise attack on a British garrison in Trenton, New Jersey, and by the
spring of 1778 Benjamin Franklin succeeds in persuading King Louis XVI to
ally himself with the American rebels and declare war on Great Britain.  The
surrender of a second British army to the rebels in 1781 results in the fall
of the North ministry, and by 1783 the British government has recognized the
independence of the American republic.

It is at this point that Sobel suffers his first major loss of nerve.  Rather
than extrapolate a likely future for the newly-independent United States of
America based on the trends current in the 1770s, and especially based on the
government established by the Continental Congress in 1777 with the Articles
of Confederation, Sobel begins to twist events to produce an outcome
paralleling actual history.  The revolutionary ardor of his American republic
is quickly dissipated, and a reaction sets in which results in the adoption
in 1787 of a new Constitution which has more in common with the historical
Mexican Constitution than with the idealistic principles that produced the
rebellion.  Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry become marginal figures, Jefferson
is eclipsed by Hamilton, and a strangely reactionary George Washington
becomes the new nation's leader.

The result is a peculiar amalgam of the historical USM and CNA.  Under its
Hamiltonian constitution, the USA lurches from reaction to radicalism and
back again.  An undeclared naval war with France is followed by an ill-timed
declaration of war against Great Britain.  The Hamiltonians establish a
national bank, which is then allowed to die by a Jeffersonian regime, then
resurrected by the Hamiltonians, then allowed to die again by the

This national "bipolar disorder" is reflected in the personal relationship
between Jefferson and John Adams -- friends at the Congress, rivals in
Europe, bitter enemies as leaders of rival parties, then friends after
retiring from public life.  We are expected to believe that the egalitarian
antimonarchist Adams becomes a tool of the mercantile elite who seeks to
stifle free expression.  We are also expected to believe that the firebrand
revolutionary and polemicist Jefferson evolves into a dedicated pacifist who
allows his nation's defences to decay into uselessness, while simultaneously
being a great statesman who negotiates the peaceful purchase of the Vandalias
from Sobel's Fanchon-analogue.  Finally, history records that John Adams and
Thomas Jefferson were hanged within hours of each other in December 1778.  In
_For All Time_ they still die within hours of each other, but Sobel has it
occur on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  (In
one of the numerous minor errors with which the book is littered, the
Declaration of Independence is signed on the 4th rather than the 2nd of July

In Europe, meanwhile, the success of the American rebellion inspires an
uprising in France in 1789, which is all too obviously based on the
historical French Revolution of 1880, ending with a more successful version
of Henri Fanchon who manages to conquer most of Europe before finally being
vanquished in 1815.  Symptomatic of Sobel's unwillingness to depart too
radically from actual history is the appearance of historical figures such as
Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Thomas Edison, despite the
decades of altered history that precede their births.  Another instance of
this failure of imagination is Sobel's overwhelming use of our own world's
technical and social terminology: telegraph, telephone, phonograph, radio,
dynamite, electronic, submarine, white- and blue-collar, GNP, guerrilla,
scientist.  Sobel's examples of alternate vocabulary are few: automobile for
locomobile, airplane for airmobile, tank for terramobile, television for

Despite these deficiencies, however, _For All Time_ has its charms.
Particularly engaging is Sobel's portrait of the American government in the
first half of the 19th century, where notable North Americans such as Van
Buren, Calhoun and Webster rub elbows with Mexican statesmen such as Andrew
Jackson and John Quincy Adams.  (Amusingly, Sobel depicts Adams as an enemy
of Jackson, while Van Buren is Jackson's handpicked successor as President of
the USA.)  Sobel's admiration for Jackson shows clearly: not only does he
defeat regular British troops in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, he
voluntarily lays down the office of President after only two terms.

As Sobel's history moves into the industrial age, however, the author's
distaste for the Mexican elements of his imaginary USA becomes ever more
prominent.  Slavery persists into the 1860s, and its abolition combines the
worst features of the Calles regime and the Rocky Mountain War, as secession
by the slave-owners leads to catastrophic civil war, and the victory of the
abolitionists is overturned by corrupt politicians who allow the freed slaves
to be terrorized into a state of debt-peonage by their former owners.
Subsequent attempts by Negroes to regain their freedom are invariably met
with renewed oppression, leading to a re-creation of Mexico's Rainbow War in
the USA.

The manner in which Sobel deals with the abolition of slavery in _For All
Time_ brings up the related topic of woman suffrage.  One of the most serious
criticisms directed against _For Want of a Nail_ was the total absence of any
discussion of the suffragist movement in the CNA.  The reason for Sobel's
reticence is clear enough -- embarrassment over the role of his hero Ezra
Gallivan in delaying the enactment of woman suffrage for twenty years.
Rather than discuss what was probably Gallivan's least attractive
characteristic -- his misogynistic feelings towards women -- Sobel skips over
the whole matter, relegating the enfranchisement of women to a single short
sentence in a footnote on page 85.

In _For All Time_, Sobel makes up for his past reticence with a vengeance,
and in a most peculiar way.  In Sobel's USA, the suffragist movement is
combined with both abolitionism and the temperance movement.  Consequently,
when women in the USA do finally win the vote, their enfranchisement comes on
the heels of an utterly bizarre constitutional amendment banning the sale of
alcohol -- a particularly egregious example of misplaced idealism in a book
brimming with examples of misplaced idealism.

The twentieth century sees Europe torn apart in a series of bloody wars which
give rise to monstrous ideologies -- although, as usual, the ideologies bear
an all-too-close resemblance to those of our own world.  The class-based
theories of Marx are combined with the emotional fervor of Neiderhofferism
and the stereotypical tyrannical brutality of Tsarist Russia to produce
"Communism".  The racialist policies of modern-day Victoria are taken to an
absurd extreme in Germany to produce "Nazism".  Fanchonism is recreated
intact in Italy and given the slightly altered name of "Fascism".

At this point, Sobel gives over all pretense of plausibility.  It takes just
twenty years for Germany (aided by the abysmally stupid policies of the
British and French) to rise from the ashes of a terrible defeat to launch a
war of conquest rivalling that of our own world's Global War.  Japan
inexplicably veers away from democracy into a dark vortex of militarism,
imperialism and cruelty that climaxes in an unprovoked, suicidal attack on
the USA, a nation with twice its population and eight times its industrial

From there, the world of _For All Time_ becomes an escalating nighmare.  So
frequently do governments slaughter millions of their own citizens that Sobel
coins one of his rare neologisms to describe it: genocide.  The discovery of
atomic weapons in the 1940s results in their widespread use by various
nations against armed opponents both foreign and domestic.  The end of
colonialism in Africa sees the continent dominated by the Union of South
Africa, another Victoria analogue based, inexplicably, on our world's Cape
Kingdom.  By the end of Sobel's history in 1971, Europe is reduced to
cannibalism, Asia is trapped under a brutal Communist dictatorship, and the
USA is consumed by incessant racial strife.

Robert Sobel has gained a popular reputation as anti-Mexican, based largely
on _For Want of a Nail_.  In _For All Time_ he makes it clear that that
reputation is deserved.  Sobel has taken the stereotypical Mexican traits of
militarism, racialism, and irresponsible idealism, and made them the defining
characteristics of an imaginary dystopia.  His USA is meant to be an
indictment of the Mexican national character, and of the revolutionary ideals
that gave rise to it.  In an age when national coexistence has become a
matter of human survival rather than lofty idealism, _For All Time_
represents a step in the wrong direction.
John Dickinson Pez is Professor of North American History at Webster