WINSTON Churchill's take on what would have happened had...

August 31, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

WINSTON Churchill's take on what would have happened had Robert E. Lee won the Battle of Gettysburg occupied this space last Monday. As I reminded readers, he wasn't the only writer to ponder such an "if."

Martin H. McKibbin teaches at McDonogh School. A few years ago he proposed to his 11th grade U.S. history students that they research historical events and write essays about "what might have happened."

Over the next six years almost 300 students collaborated to produce 51 essays covering events from Plymouth Rock (what if the Mayflower had turned around before reaching America?) to the Watergate complex (what if the White House tapes hadn't been discovered?).

One essay asks, "What if, at the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee had disengaged and fought a defensive battle from a stronger position?" The essay concluded that that would have resulted in "a decisive Confederate victory." Churchill speculated that if Lee had won at Gettysburg the Confederacy would have won the war. I think the McDonogh theory is more realistic: "Although it seems unlikely that the Confederates could have won the war. . . the war could have continued for an even longer period, and even more soldiers, blue and gray, would have fallen to achieve the same result."

A different thought: What if Lee had fought for the Union? A McDonogh essay pondering that concluded, "Northern forces under his command would have quickly defeated the Confederacy, thereby drastically reducing the length of the war and minimizing the loss of life."

Here are some more modern McDonogh speculations (all are collected in the book, "What If? Exploring the Paths Not Taken in American History," edited by Mr. McKibbin).

If Richard Nixon had been elected president in 1960, "Nixon, with his record of years of fighting the Cold War, could have worked toward detente more effectively. He might have put an end to the Vietnam War sooner."

If Ronald Reagan, who was up for it, had gotten the role of Rick in the movie "Casablanca," "he probably would have had more opportunities to act, and perhaps would not have pursued a political career. Without Reagan, would free-market economics have flourished? Would the Soviet Union have collapsed and the Berlin Wall come tumbling down? And without Bogart, would 'Casablanca' still be a classic?"

If Sen. Ted Kennedy hadn't had his tragic accident on Chappaquiddick, "[he] probably would have run against Richard Nixon in 1972. Even if he had lost that year. . . Kennedy probably would have defeated Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1976, and gone on to defeat Gerald Ford and won the presidency."

I have one more classic Civil War "what if," that can't be condensed and fits in with some "ifs" being suggested by today's headlines.

Monday: U. S. Grant and Colin Powell.

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