Thursday, January 25, 2024

Guest Post: Wilson's Third Term

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History from Allen W. McDonnell.

2 October, 1919 -

On this fateful day, the 28th President of the United States Woodrow Wilson suffered a second minor stroke. It was a repeat of a medical event thirteen years earlier when he awoke to find himself blind in the left eye, the result of a blood clot and hypertension. Once again this great American was able to make a complete recovery and return to work. In time, he would resume his international leadership as one of the Progressive Era's largest-looming intellectuals.

The previous year had been brutal for him. Mid-term elections in 1918 had suggested widespread voter apathy towards the Democrats as war patriotism ebbed. Apart from the complications of his life-threatening health scare, the political fortunes of the Party were down because of the troubled economy and Senate's rejection of the Treaty of Versailles. At that sour moment, it seemed extremely unlikely that he would set the direction for America's transition to peace.

1920 would certainly be a Republican year, but surely Warren Harding made a bad mistake in choosing a running mate, selecting Irvine L. Lenroot over Calvin Coolidge. By the time that Harding suffered a fatal heart attack, Wilson was already considering his options: a return to legal practice with former Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby or perhaps a campaign for a historic third term in the White House. In a radio address on Armistice Day, he sharply criticized the victor powers for having made "waste paper of the Treaty of Versailles," a sure sign that he intended to restore his political legacy. Ultimately, it would be a combination of Harding's untimely death, the unpopularity of his lackluster successor, and the Teapot Dome Scandal that sealed his victory.

Re-election was an unexpected bonus, but, to those of his political enemies that knew the full story, he had not failed because he had a stroke. Rather, he had a stroke because he had failed. Yet the struggles of his final year in the Oval Office marked progress during his previous eight in which he had adopted a large number of anti-libertarian stances. Wilson was the only president to be born in the Confederacy, and his political philosophy clashed sharply with the Constitution and even American traditions. Fathering the notion of a "living Constitution," his initiatives included the War Industries Board, Committee on Public Information, Palmer Raids, Espionage Act of 1917, and American Protective League.

It was certainly true that during the Progressive Era many politicians favored social programs that shared Wilson's own goals. However, the third decade of the twentieth century would see a sharp turn from "enlightened" government. Wilson's triumphant return to office would occur at a decisive moment for the Western World when Fascism was on the rise. The historic state visit to Rome would only be the first step in a new relationship with the emerging totalitarian figures of the 1920s. The long shadows of the Confederacy loomed over Europe in that dark decade.

Author's Note:

In reality, Wilson's health did not markedly improve after leaving office, declining rapidly in January 1924. He did open a law practice and showed up the first day but never returned, and the practice was closed by the end of 1922. He died on February 3, 1924, at the age of 67. Many of Wilson's accomplishments, including the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, the graduated income tax, and labor laws, continued to influence the United States long after Wilson's death.

Provine's Addendum:

As the end of Wilson's third term approached, it was obvious he would be considered "too old" for the excited voters of the Roaring Twenties. Many Republicans were already abuzz about Herbert Hoover, who had continued as the shining star of the ill-fated Harding administration under Wilson as Secretary of Commerce. Wilson had tapped Hoover to keep the nation on the economic upswing after already having worked with him to work in the Food Administration when the U.S. joined the Great War. The progressive Republican under a Democratic president was lauded by the press as a "New Era of Good Feelings." When Wilson endorsed Hoover for the '28 election, Hoover defeated Democrat candidate Al Smith so handily that it rivaled James Monroe's victory in 1820.

Unfortunately, the Era of Good Feelings came crashing down with the stock market in 1929. Hoover's administration took much of the blame of slow relief and the violent repression of the Bonus Army veterans camped in Washington. Wilson again came out of retirement, this time to play kingmaker and assure the victory of John Nance Garner at the 1932 Democratic National Convention. Garner readily defeated Hoover and laid down a firm hand nearing totalitarianism, mirroring many of the major construction programs seen by fascist regimes in Europe and using emergency executive powers to restructure American immigration and minority policies. By the time of the Lindbergh presidency and the Pacific War, many began to question whether America was still the "Land of the Free," but of course their opinions were quashed as radicalism.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Guest Post: Great War stretches into 1919

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History conceived by Allen W. McDonnell.

10 Jan, 1919-

The earliest new-year batch of US-supplied wooden steamships, led by the S.S. Accomac, arrived in British ports. These January deliveries served as a show of strength and resolve, as Anglo-American forces continued to fight the Great War without France.

It was a long and winding road from the German Spring Offensive of 1918, which had captured Paris and convinced France to stand down her exhausted forces and accept a position of strict neutrality for the remainder of the war. In truth, France had been suffering more and more mutinies by front-line troops who saw the lives of their fellow soldiers being thrown away in wasteful assaults on the front lines. German troops remained in control of Paris to convince the government to comply with its neutrality ceasefire agreement.

In this case, the German offensive had struck just to the south of the American section of the front lines, and, as they widened their breakthrough advance the American and British forces, had withdrawn north and west. Over the following three weeks, the lines had stabilized with the English-speaking forces holding the former Duchy of Normandy and the westernmost sliver of Belgium. Also, the retention of this coastal strip enabled the US-reinforced Royal Navy to maintain complete control of the North Sea.

France studiously followed the ceasefire and neutrality agreement and formally requested the Americans and British to vacate Normandy; however, the remaining allies refused to do so as it would have left just the sliver of Belgium in their hands, and that was too small a foothold to be worth keeping.

In the USA, the Emergency Fleet Corporation had placed an order shortly after the declaration of war with a score of shipyards to build an emergency cargo fleet to counteract the effects of unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic. The first step had been to nationalize the 431 cargo vessels of under 5,500 tons already under construction or on order from US building yards. The next step was to face the fact that USA steel industry simply lacked the capacity to build both the navy ships, mostly destroyers, refit the 431 already seized cargo ships, and construct the additional 1,000 ships planned for the war cargo fleet expansion program.

To get around this limitation, the maritime architect Theodore Ferris fell back on the techniques of the 1880's, designing a 3,500 ton steam powered cargo ship with a wooden hull reinforced with steel to provide the needed strength with a minimum of metal in the design. These so-called Composite-type ships had been developed in the second half of the 19th century to permit ships larger than a purely wooden frame could support in rough seas. Using steel beams and bracing also reduced the need for extremely large wooden structures that used up a lot of the internal cargo volume of a purely wooden vessel. Best of all, the USA had a surplus of lumber because the war had effectively halted house construction, and all the lumber already seasoned and stockpiled for building construction was now available for emergency ship hull material instead. While it would take a year or two for all 1,000 wooden hull ships to be delivered, there was never any doubt they were within the capacity of many boatyards on both sea coasts and around the Great Lakes.

Germany tried three times to break into the "Anglisch Enclave" in Normandy and Belgium but were repulsed by the ever growing number of fresh American troops arriving weekly through the late spring and all the way to Christmas from across the Atlantic. As Christmas arrived in Europe, three new American weapons started arriving in large numbers at Cherbourg in Normandy. The first of these are the Thompson sub-machine gun, which could fire out 75 rounds from its drum magazine in either automatic or aimed fire single shots. The second weapon was the modified 1903 Mark I Springfield Rifle with a semi-automatic pistol mechanism in place of the standard bolt action in the breech. This allowed the rifle to be fitted with a 40-bullet capacity magazine firing pistol ammunition down the long rifle barrel one bullet for every pull of the trigger. This Pedersen device option gave the rifle an immense magazine capacity compared to the 5-bullet internal magazine the rifle had been originally designed to use. The Winchester Model 1897 shotgun fired each time the action closed with the trigger depressed, allowing soldiers to empty the entire 5-shell magazine in "slam firing" with such intensity that it earned the nickname "trench sweeper" and faced international outcry from the German government, saying it violated the Geneva Convention and that any American soldier captured with one would be executed.

British tanks in the 1919 Spring Offensive and breakout, however, turned out to be a major disappointment as the German army had spent the winter months perfecting several anti-tank devices mostly in the form of 20mm anti-tank artillery pieces and special heavy armor-piercing sniper rounds for the regulation sniper rifle version of the Mauser.

Germany was in much better shape in 1919 as over the fall and winter V.I. Lenin had shipped a million tons of grain west to Germany as part of their peace agreement more than compensating for the food shortages caused by so much of the farm labor being in the service. At sea, the U-boats had considerable success sinking cargo ships causing a loss of almost 2,000 ships in 1918 alone. British, Canadian, American, and third-party countries like Brazil were barely able to replace the number of ships lost. Even as the new wood-hulled freighters were joining the convoys starting in July, 1918, fully a quarter of ships never finished a round trip from North America to the UK and back for a second load of cargo.

To combat this loss, allies ramped up the massive production of Wickes class destroyers, which had soaked up most of the ship-building steel with the first being commissioned in April, 1918, and the 125th being completed in March, 1920, a few months after the peace treaty. While they never stopped the U-boat attacks entirely, they did reduce losses to a rate which could be compensated for with new construction. Ironically, the last of the 1,000 composite wooden hull cargo ships joined the convoys just a week before peace negotiations began in earnest in 1920.

The "Anglisch Enclave" was a pocket that restored a miniature version of the stalemate on the Western Front before the French collapse. Neither the attackers could occupy, nor the defenders break out. Despite the flood of goods and men from the USA, the British public was tired of the war by 1918 and finally, in November 1919 a return to Status Quo Antebellum was agreed to in Europe and Africa. Anglo-American Forces were evacuated as German forces withdrew, but the reconstruction of French sovereignty, and repair of relations with London and Washington, would take many years to accomplish.

Germany lost its colonies in the Pacific and Papua New Guinea to Japan, New Zealand, and Australia but resumed its colonies in Africa. In compensation, and to ensure peace, the Western allies had no choice but to endorse the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. France and Brazil oversaw the vote in the areas allowed to choose their own government mainly in the Ukraine and Belorussia, Finland, Estonia, and Livonia (Latvia). Edward, Prince of Wales, gained international prestige for reaching out to his cousin the future Wilhelm III in back-channel negotiations that led to an acceptable peace.

Author's Note:

In reality, Paris did not fall, and it was the exhausted German Army that capitulated.

One of the consequences of the abrupt end of hostilities was over-supply, an excessively large amount of shipping needing to be scrapped. The U.S. Navy did not want the ships, which were stored in the James River at the cost of $50,000 a month. They were soon sold to the Western Marine & Salvage Company. The company moved the ships to the Potomac River at Widewater, Virginia, and, in 1925, they were towed to Mallows Bay. When Western Marine went bankrupt, the ships were burned and remained where they lay. Among the most prominent ships seen at Mallows Bay is the S.S. Accomac. In total, 230 United States Shipping Board Merchant Fleet Corporation ships are sunken in the river.

Provine's Addendum:

With the world at peace, eyes in Europe kept furtive glances to the east as Russia continued its experiment with communism. German support for Lenin dried up as soon as the Western Front fell quiet, leading to a dragging civil war with numerous fronts between Bolsheviks, anti-communist Whites, and separatists seeking to move beyond the historical Russian Empire's grip. In fall of 1920, the Tambov Rebellion of peasants striking out against the Bolsheviks added to the chaos with a new Green Army. Allied leaders like Winston Churchill argued that Bolshevism should be "strangled in its cradle," leading to further volunteer armies coming from the West, many of them veterans of the Great War. Gradually during the severe famines of 1920 and '21, the Bolsheviks lost their momentum, and, by 1925, were driven out of the last strongholds as Kaiser Wilhelm and King George V helped the young George Mikhailovich onto the throne of a rump Russian state, frustrating the plans of Kirill Vladimirovich. The former Russian Empire was considered a new China or Africa with European powers clamoring to gain political influence over newly independent nations like Belarus and Ukraine as well as economic colonies with German railways heading eastward and British influence spreading northward into Central Asia from India. Japan seized Russian territory on the Pacific, sparking turmoil with the United States over sovereignty and laying the groundwork for the next great war.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Weird USA from Recess

A while after seeing the weird map of the USA from a Simpsons comic, I noticed another weird map in the cartoon Recess (1997-2001). It showed up in a couple of episodes in the background hanging in the school's office.

The Lower 48 states can be complicated to draw, and it's just the background, so I can understand why it might look funky as artists try to get the show together. But, this opportunity also leads to a potential alternate history on how it could look that way. I redrew the map for a bit more clarity and did some brainstorming on how it might've happened.

November 7, 1685 - James II Orders Survey of the 40th Parallel

From the original charters of Virginia and Massachusetts, the English colonies in North America had a bad habit of their borders crossing one another for overlapping claims. The Virginia Company was promised land north and west in 1609, which eventually fell into land also promised to the westward "sea-to-sea" territory of Massachusetts Bay in 1628. Other disagreements soon broke out, such as New Hampshire breaking up Massachusetts in two and the New York colony having an unclear boundary in territory captured from what was called "New Netherlands" and the well-established English colony in Connecticut. Disputes came to a head in the 1680s when William Penn sent letters to several land owners that they should be paying him taxes rather than Baltimore. Penn had been granted some 45,000 square miles in 1681 by James II in lieu of debts owed to Penn's father, which began west of the Delaware River near where Charles I had granted Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore, in 1632. Penn needed access to the bay, so he persuaded the king to also grant him lands southward, creating confusion and turmoil.

Penn's legal team argued that the land grant for Baltimore's Maryland had only been for uncultivated land, meaning that portions could be claimed by settlers who made their homes there, such as the earlier colonists of New Sweden and Dutch settlers. Penn now claimed these lands, even though his Quaker sensibilities weren't terribly popular with the established communities in the southern reaches. Exacerbated, the king finally announced that there must be an official survey and that Penn's stakes must be more carefully examined.

During the examination, it came to light that Penn's lawyer, Philip Ford, was a cheat. Penn had given power of attorney upon his departure to visit his holdings and encourage the Quaker colonists in 1682. Not a man for details, Penn trusted Ford and others to make his big-picture dreams into reality even to the point that he signed legal documents without reading them. Ford proved to be charging exorbitant legal fees as well as percentages of all money handled. In fact, Ford had effectively taken ownership of Pennsylvania due to mortgaging rules. Penn had realized this earlier and had tried to keep the matter quiet by agreeing that Ford could keep rent money from Penn's lands in Ireland, but now Penn was the laughingstock of London. Fearing that this might harm the Quaker cause, Penn determined to resolve his financial and territorial matters.

After wresting ownership of Pennsylvania back from Ford at terrible expense, Penn sold the land west of the Susquehanna River to speculators for cash. This land would later be organized into Allegheny, the first colony without immediate access to the Atlantic. He came to terms with Baltimore, trading the questioned Lower Counties to Maryland for good favor. Pennsylvania then joined the Dominion of New England, the reorganization established by James II and furthered by William III after the Glorious Revolution.

The dominion did not last long, and soon the colonies were again reorganized. Thanks to Penn's widely publicized establishment of clear borders, other disputes were determined to be settled. Lobbyists from the Province of New York successfully managed to have Connecticut annexed as it was a royal colony rather than a proprietary one. Massachusetts won its northwestern lands, while New Hampshire also gained a northwesterly angle separating Maine. Pennsylvania was merged into the two Jerseys (east and west) to a single Jersey.

Matters settled in New England for a time with settlers pouring into lands in the St. Lawrence watershed. With such numbers by the time of the Seven Years War (or "French and Indian War" in North America), Canada soon fell to British control. It was also during this war that Prime Minister William Pitt encouraged bold expeditions in the Caribbean that took Guadeloupe (1759), Dominica (1761), and New Orleans (1762). The last action interrupted the Treaty of Fontainebleau in which King Louis XV of France secretly promised the territory of Louisiana to Charles III of Spain. Britain was outraged during the discussions for the Treaty of Paris the next year, but all parties came to an agreement with Britain gaining lands east of the Mississippi as well as north of the 30th Parallel.

Following the American Revolution, those lands became part of the new United States of America. North Carolina fought to keep its claim all the way west to the Mississippi. Virginia, whose ownership of the Northwestern Territory had already been violated for years by settlers eager to get into the Ohio Valley, gave up its claims past the Appalachian Mountains. The territories grew up into new states like Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Cumberland.

West of the Mississippi, settlers made new states of what had been broad territories, first carving out Wisconsin and Minnesota as well as Arkansas. Encroachment into Mexico sparked a revolution in Tejas, becoming Texas and a broad stretch of Oklahoma, where Native Americans from the South were forced to resettle. Missouri served as the gateway to the prairie, which would later be broken into North Dakota, South Dakota, North Nebraska, South Nebraska, and Kansas.


In reality, Lord Baltimore was granted land south of the 40th parallel, but neither party bothered making an official survey. Penn did not review Ford's activities until after Ford's death, when he was driven into debtor's prison by lawsuits from Ford's heirs.

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