Turning points in history – are we at another?

Summary: What do turning points of history look like? To see those in the future, let’s look at those in the past. Here’s a quick look at big events of history that were not, and some that were.

Turning Points of History

The Atlantic asks “What was the worst year in history?” It’s a powerful question, offering a deeper understanding of history. Most of the answers fell into three categories.

  • Inevitable events: the Chicxulub asteroid impact 65 million years ago (disastrous, but cleared the planet for the rise of mammals), the invention of firearms.
  • Lots of people dying early: pandemics (e.g., smallpox in 1918, plague in 1347. These people were all going to die eventually.
  • One of humanity’s countless wars: Sack of Antwerp in 1576, King Philip’s War in 1675, US Civil War, WWI, WWII.

These are the normal events of history. The occurrence of these individual events was chance, but as a group they are the rhythms of life. Shifting the dates and details of these events might change history, but probably not significantly alter the course of humanity’s evolution. Consider a different and more useful perspective on this question.

What events changed the course of history for the worse?

(1) The lost computer revolution of the 19th century

My favorite candidate is 1832 — when Charles Babbage halted construction of his difference engine (a mechanical calculator) due to a dispute with his engineer, Joseph Clement. This resulted from Babbage’s great creativity and lack of focus. In 1842 the British government ended support for the project. Swedish academic and inventor Martin Wiberg build a working version in 1875, but lacked government sponsorship and was unable to sell it. Mechanical calculators became commercially available only after 1900.

Imagine a contrafactual, an alternative world in which Babbage finished his calculator and printer by 1840. His design was sound; both were built from his plans and successfully run in 2000 using tools and materials available to Babbage.

That’s the small news. With that success Babbage might have built his analytical engine — a programmable analog computer and its software (several assembly languages). He had designed most of it by his death in 1871. Better funding and more encouragement — powered by a 1842 success of his difference engine — might have produced a working model by 1871. If not, his son, Henry Prevost Babbage, might have done so (he did continue his father’s work, and produced a working component). IBM built the first modern version in 1944.

Turning Points Logo

Imagine a working calculator in 1840-1850 and working computer in 1870. How might that have accelerated science and technology? How might that have boosted the theoretic revolutions in science during 1870-1940? For example, what might the engineers in Thomas Edison’s Menlo Part laboratory have done with computers (it opened in 1876, the first large scale R&D shop)?

With the push from calculators and computers we might have fulfilled the dreams of the late Victorian era — and their limitless confidence in the hope and promise of human potential and ingenuity.

Without that additional push, major science breakthroughs slowed after 1940 — leading to the great slowdown after 1970 and the secular stagnation of our time.

(2) The lost genetic revolution of 1866

Gregor Mendel published his revolutionary insights about genetics in 1866. His work was duplicated in 1900. Might their acceptance three decades earlier have made a substantial difference to the development of agriculture and biological sciences. Might we have had the 1960s green revolution in the 1930s?

(3) The failure of Apollo

The manned space program is one of America’s greatest non-military capital investments. Other than a spectacle, it accomplished little of consequence. Too much attention to the engineering, too little attention to the vision — what does the “conquest of space” mean (landing on the moon is a means to accomplish something). For details see Men in space: an expensive trip to nowhere.

It was a false start, like Babbage and Mendel. Imagine if we had pushed a bit harder in the 1960s to generate value from space exploration. Building a space station to give a foothold in space, rather than disposable self-contained craft. Putting engineers and scientists in space instead of just pilots. The progress of the 1960s might not have flamed out in the 1970s. Who knows where we might be now?

As with computers and genetics, eventually we will decisively move into space. Here’s the reason why.

(4) When are individual deaths forks in history?

One exception to the unimportance of people dying early as drivers of history are the untimely (often violent) deaths of leaders. Although most affect only regional history, and often trivially; some change history. History is contingent on these kinds of random events.

  • Pericles, the “the first citizen of Athens”, guided Athens through the first three years of the Peloponnesian War. An epidemic in 430-429 devastated Athens, with the death of Pericles among its worst effects. In the next 25 years his successors led Athens — and Greece — to ruin. If he had lived and led the War to better conclusion — a negotiated peace — then the wonderful Classical world would have lasted longer, and the West would had a different history.
  • Julius Caesar was one of the great men of history, living during the pivotal years in which the Republic became the Empire. If not killed in March 44, might he have built the Empire on a more rational and stronger foundation?
  • Czar Alexander II of Russia (“the Liberator”) was one of the greatest reformers in Russian history. His assassination in 1881 at age 60 not only ended his work, but also convinced his heir that conservatism was the better policy. This put Russia on course for a revolution in 1917. If he had lived, Russia might have avoided the horrors of the next century, and made a more positive contribution to western civilization (other than as a bad example).
  • JFK’s history changed US history by putting LBJ into the White House. Only LBJ could have passed the epochal civil rights legislation in 1964-65. But the tapes and records of the JFK years suggest that he might have avoided the Vietnam War. The war helped break America’s post-WWII optimism, and shattered the social consensus that had worked so well. Who knows what path America would have taken if JFK lived?
  • On the other hand, Martin Luther King Jr. was spent as a political force when shot in 1968. Too radical for Whites. Too tame for Black Americans.

People matter. Some matter more than most. We all matter when we work together.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about history, and especially these…

 

17 thoughts on “Turning points in history – are we at another?

    1. MCloud,

      I agree that Hero’s steam engine is a good example of the Hellenistic era’s advanced science. Why didn’t this spark industrialization? Lots of theories about this, as well as the similar question about China.

      I didn’t include these as a missed opportunities for the somewhat arbitrary reason of scale. There were deep cultural and economic reasons that neither industrialized despite having the potential. The examples I gave were opportunities missed for smaller reasons, where history could easily have taken another path.

    2. A follow-up to McCould’s comment —

      Failure to industrialize are similar forks in history, in a sense, to unnecessary and civilization-wrecking wars. The classic examples are the Peloponnesian War and WWI. Like the failure of the classical and Chinese civilizations to industrialize, they have such deep roots that I find it difficult to imagine that history could have gone on another path.

  1. Fascinating stuff to ponder, for sure.

    Not sure I’d put Kennedy withdrawing from Vietnam in the counter-factual basket, though. I’ve not waded through the primary sources myself, but based on Chomsky’s essay “Vain Hopes, False Dreams” my understanding was that Kennedy was planning to withdraw . . . only after victory had been achieved. No victory was likely to be forthcoming even had Kennedy lived, and there’s no evidence to suggest Kennedy was willing to withdraw without victory. It was under his watch that the initial escalation happened in the first place.

    I don’t plan on watching “Virtual JFK” but based on the synopsis on the website that sketches Kennedy as some sort of Ghandian figure of non-violence (conveniently overlooking his escalation of the Vietnam war, his reckless, illegal invasion of Cuba and the subsequent terrorism campaign, etc.) I’m a bit skeptical of its thesis.

    I suppose Kennedy might have been more skillful in his prosecution of the war than Johnson and thereby mitigated some of the destruction, but as long as the U.S. persisted in attempting to impose its will on Vietnam the basic outcome was going to be the same.

    Do you know of anything that lays out, in written form (I don’t have time for videos), a solid case for the “Kennedy would have ended the Vietnam war” hypothesis?

    1. Phageghost,

      I don’t know where you get that characterization of JFK, but it’s not from the Virtual JFK. It’s based on a roundtable of historians working with the transcripts and memos — original sources. They are clear that we can only guess at what Kennedy would do. It is not correct to say that JFK planned to withdraw only after victory. I read the book, which I recommend.

      Re: Chomsky. First, he’s not a historian. Not even a reliable source of info, imo. Second, he wrote that in 1992 — before most of the tapes were released.

    2. Thanks, I didn’t realize there was an accompanying book. If additional tapes have been released that would definitely be useful. Everything I’ve read by him or about him has painted a picture of him being essentially a man of his time: a resolute Cold Warrior, preferring to avoid conflict but not at the expense of the overriding goal of containing International Communism wherever and whenever he had to.

      That characterization is my paraphrasing of the synopsis from the movie’s website:

      “In the era of nuclear confrontation, John F. Kennedy attempted to prevent war six times during his short tenure as president. He didn’t live to face a seventh. Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived takes up one of America’s controversial “what if” scenarios, examining the question: Would the U.S. have escalated the war in Vietnam if Kennedy was not assassinated in 1963? With insight and erudition, the film traces JFK’s presidency Πa 1,000-day term plagued with tense political stand-offs Ϡthrough rare and previously-unseen archival footage, offering nuanced accounts of the former president’s political decisions and, by extension, his probable response to the escalating conflict in Vietnam. Featuring unprecedented access into the leadership style of one of the nation’s most important leaders, Virtual JFK sheds new light on the man who helped avoid war in six crises and did not live to save America from the devastating war in Vietnam.”

      IMHO he could have “save[d] America from the devastating war in Vietnam” by not getting us into it (any more than Eisenhower already had) in the first place. Usually simpler that way.

    3. Phageghost,

      You believe Virtual JFK “sketches Kennedy as some sort of Ghandian figure of non-violence”? That a heavy set of ideological blinders you’re carrying. The case these historians make is that JFK had deescalated crises in Laos, Berlin, Cuba, etc — and had made statements suggesting that he might do so in Vietnam.

      “IMHO he could have “save[d] America from the devastating war in Vietnam” by not getting us into it (any more than Eisenhower already had) in the first place.”

      If only you had been president instead of Ike and JFK! The answers to past decisions are so obvious!

  2. James (son of John) K. Galbraith writing in Boston Review in 2003 gives a good account of the terms of the debate and makes a strong case for the Kennedy Withdrawal thesis using the additional material released in the late 1990s. See also the subsequent letter exchange with Chomsky. and his 2013 article in The Nation

    It’s certainly clear now that 1) Kennedy had directed military and other planners to prepare for a 1965 withdrawal date. The second important leg of this thesis is that 2) Kennedy and McNamara were skeptical the official optimistic reports of military progress and therefore were prepared to implement the withdrawal even in the face of a deteriorating military situation. Point 2) is on shakier ground, and here there is room for disagreement, though McNamara’s own statements about his own opinions should probably be taken at face value. Would Kennedy have followed through with the plan even as the situation got worse? Obviously it’s hard to stay committed to a plan as the perceived costs begin to mount, and we’ve seen, in the earlier years of the Iraq war, many announcements of troop withdrawals followed a few months later by reversals as the situation got worse. But trying to guess the mind of Kennedy in 1965 had he lived brings us away from any documentary evidence and squarely into the realm of pure speculation.

    Another, secondary but still important element of the thesis is that 3) Johnson’s policy of escalation after taking office was not a continuation of Kennedy’s policy but represented a break and departure. This is less-well-supported than 1) but there’s a good case for it.

    So, yeah, I’ve been convinced that Kennedy did plan to withdraw from Vietnam. We can never know if we would have followed through with it given the scanty evidence of the depth of his commitment, but to require such would be holding him to an unreasonable historical standard.

    1. phageghost,

      I suggest you get your information from people who have some knowledge of the subject. James Kenneth Galbraith is an economist, not a historian — let alone a specialist in the cold war era. (IMO he’s hack conservative economist, but that’s not esp relevant here).

      He’s even less qualified to write about this than Chomsky.

  3. “You believe Virtual JFK “sketches Kennedy as some sort of Ghandian figure of non-violence”? That a heavy set of ideological blinders you’re carrying. The case these historians make is that JFK had deescalated crises in Laos, Berlin, Cuba, etc — and had made statements suggesting that he might do so in Vietnam. ”

    Yes, it makes it sound like he flitted about the globe like some kind of Tinkerbell Fairy of Peace and Goodwill, and completely ignores his role in escalating many of these same crises. E.g. the Cuban desire for basing Soviet missiles on their soil was a direct consequence of the Bay of Pigs as well as Operation Mongoose, the vicious campaign of terrorism against Cuba. The man was an International Terrorist of the first order, the Osama Bin Laden of his day. To gloss over this, IMHO, is evidence of ideological blinders, not the other way `round. It’s the same method of hagiography that would laud Columbus for his navigational skills while overlooking his rape, torture and genocide in the service of greed, that would put laurels on the shoulders of Alexander The Great or Genghis Khan for their civilizing influence while turning a blind eye to the millions of rotting corpses they left in their wake. Too easily we as humans fall into uncritical worship of the powerful.

    ““IMHO he could have “save[d] America from the devastating war in Vietnam” by not getting us into it (any more than Eisenhower already had) in the first place.”

    If only you had been president instead of Ike and JFK! The answers to past decisions are so obvious!”

    Oh come on, that’s an easy one, Fabius. In this counterfactual, I probably would have screwed everything else up as president, but the one mistake I would NOT have made would have been to instigate a campaign of terrorism in support of a corrupt dictator and the landowner class against a rural peasant insurgency. I would have respected the principles of self-determination laid out in the Atlantic Charter, and not taken over France’s project of retaking an overseas colony. I would have pushed to actually hold the national elections agreed to in the 1954 Geneva Accords despite the fact that my favored outcome might not be guaranteed. I would have been run out of town on a rail as a no good Peacenik, but I believe in weird hippy shit like international law, self-determination, freedom from colonial domination, democracy. Crazy, I know, but I can’t help it.

    I wasn’t around for Vietnam, so I suppose I can’t dismiss your charge that I’m just operating with the benefit of hindsight, so let’s talk about the Iraq War. Before it started I thought it was illegal, immoral, and a terrible mistake. While it was happening I thought it was illegal, immoral, and a terrible mistake. Now, I think it was illegal, immoral and a terrible mistake. The government propaganda campaign leading up to it was so amateurish and transparent that anyone who fell for it was either not bright or willfully deluding themselves. From what I’ve seen in the historical record the propaganda wasn’t any more sophisticated in the 1950s and 1960s.

    It’s pretty easy, actually, to avoid these kind of mistakes, and in the process appear to have the wisdom of Solomon. I’ll even give you the secret rule to apply — it’s the same one you learned on the playground in elementary school: “Don’t go looking for trouble and don’t hit anyone who didn’t hit you first.”

  4. “I suggest you get your information from people who have some knowledge of the subject. James Kenneth Galbraith is an economist, not a historian — let alone a specialist in the cold war era. (IMO he’s hack conservative economist, but that’s not esp relevant here).”

    I agree, although I don’t feel as strongly as you do about appeals to authority when it comes to subjects like this where the primary skill set is basic scholarship applied to primary documentation. We can easily (in most cases) double-check any claims ourselves.

    I’m definitely interested in better sources, but I do have a day job and can’t spend an eternity tracking them down. So far you’ve recommended the Virtual JFK book / movie. Any others you can steer me towards?

    Thanks.

    1. Phageghost,

      “where the primary skill set is basic scholarship applied to primary documentation.”

      You believe that Galbraith did much primary scholarship for that article? He says the exact opposite in the text, reviewing several popular books (i.e., for a general audience) books about Vietnam.

      Also the “appeal to authority” has become one of our laziest crutches, allowing us to filter out actual knowledge in favor of junk that suits our biases. It is a major driver of the basic ignorance repeatedly uncovered in surveys of the US public about — almost everything.

  5. Fabius,

    I did not mean that Galbraith did the scholarship for his article — it’s an attempt to summarize and bring together arguments of various historians on both sides of the issue with selected (quoted) excerpts from the primary sources. What I meant was that it is pretty easy to evaluate competing claims in this case. Both sides muster their excerpts from the primary sources and one evaluates the preponderance of evidence based on common sense principles. I don’t want to discount the incredible value of professional historians, but I don’t believe any special expertise besides a high-school education and a basic knowledge of how the government and military work is needed to evaluate this very specific historical claim. Even better, many of the primary sources are in the public domain, so we can easily verify positive claims if there’s any doubt about them. Perhaps I am over-optimistic.

    While I would love to read a stack of history books every time I make a comment here, this is unfortunately not realistic, nor is it going to be for most prospective commenters. The way it works in most domains of human knowledge is that one can read summaries and reviews to get a first-order approximation of the issues and derive a provisional model of reality that can then be updated with further information. Each further refinement of the model generally requires an exponential jump in the amount of additional information that needs to be processed. I thought I was pretty clear that I am only at the tip of the pyramid in terms of time investment, and therefore model accuracy, and am looking for pointers to better-quality sources of information by someone who’s been there first. That’s how it works in the sciences, at least. Perhaps financial analysis is different?

    But the only additional information I’ve gotten so far is that both Chomsky and Galbraith, because of their inadequate training, have done a terrible job of summarizing the literature and evidence, and presenting various sides of the controversy, and that only by watching a certain movie will I get any kind of reasonably-accurate understanding of the debate. Perhaps that is so — I will check out this Virtual JFK of yours and see what happens . . .

    1. phageghost,

      “But the only additional information I’ve gotten so far is that both Chomsky and Galbraith, because of their inadequate training, have done a terrible job of summarizing the literature and evidence, and presenting various sides of the controversy, and that only by watching a certain movie”

      The problem appears to be your FAIL to read. A quick recap of what I said.

      1. I suggested reading the book Virtual JFK, not the movie. Your remark about the film is bizarre since you specifically replied to my mention of the book. {Or you could read one of other recent books about what historians learned from the tapes.}
      2. Chomsky’s article predates the release of the relevant tapes (“he wrote that in 1992”), which substantially changed historians’ view of the JFK administration.
      3. Getting info from economists about history makes as much sense as getting your economics from historians (the expertise of the person doing the summary matters more than the books selected to summarize). {Note: there are people skilled in both fields, such as economic historian Brad DeLong.)

      I could continue, but am overcome by a feeling of futility.

      Also, it is still daft to say Virtual JFK “sketches Kennedy as some sort of Ghandian figure of non-violence”.

    2. 1. Well, your link was to the movie website. But OK, I get it, “Virtual JFK” (the book) is the only useful source for this stuff, in your view. Like I’ll said I’ll check it out when I get a chance.

      2. Yes, I’m aware of that, thanks to Galbraith’s piece discussing the evidence that came out during that time and how they changed the discussion. As I mentioned before, I’ve been convinced that Chomky’s interpretation was based on a pretty seriously incomplete record and based on what I’ve seen of what was released since then I’ve become convinced that the Kennedy Withdrawal hypothesis appears to be correct. I’ve been trying to agree with you for some time now but you do have a habit of making that very difficult for your commenters ;-).

      3. Again, I agree, but you don’t seem to be able to provide anything better with which to replace them with other than the Virtual JFK book.

      “Also, it is still daft to say Virtual JFK “sketches Kennedy as some sort of Ghandian figure of non-violence”.

      Perhaps — it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of daftness. I don’t have the time or inclination to get into a word-by-word parsing of that description, but to me it’s pretty straightforward. YMMV.

    3. P,

      “Virtual JFK” (the book) is the only useful source for this stuff, in your view. … it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of daftness.”

      I see why you are accused of being daft! I said nothing remotely like that. It is however the very best of first person evidence: from tapes of actual discussions during one of the great crises of JFK’s administration (& the post WWII-era) — plus supporting evidence from hard documentation of the period.

Leave a Reply