A Country on the Edge of Forever
I hope you had a good Veterans’ Day this past Monday. Slightly less hectic than normal, right? No mail. Government offices and banks were closed. Still, most of life went on.
If you’re an active service member or veteran, perhaps something nice happened. Maybe you had a free meal at Denny’s or Applebee’s. On my end, I took up on an offer for a free car wash from a business called Mr. Magic, not far from where I live. Hey, why not?
Just to be clear, Veterans’ Day is for current and former military who are still alive. “Thank you for your service” and all. Next May, Memorial Day is to recall the ones who are gone.
Veterans’ Day used to be called Armistice Day. Originally, the date commemorated the end of “The Great War,” now called World War I. In France, the guns fell silent at 11:00 am on November 11, 1918; or 11-11-11, leaving off the “18.” This year marks 101 years since the event.
You might think that a century-plus-one year is a long time. It’s not exactly ancient history, but it is old, right? Actually, no. Because World War I may as well have been yesterday. We live in the world created by that martial calamity.
That is, take a look at almost any big-time, geopolitical issue of today, and you can likely trace roots back to World War I. Which prompts me to think of Star Trek…
Yes, Star Trek. There’s an episode called “The City on the Edge of Forever.” It first aired on April 7, 1967.
Quick summary… Starship Enterprise went into orbit around a mysterious planet. Captain Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy et al. beamed down and found the ruins of an ancient civilization.
Turns out, this lost civilization developed time travel technology. Long story short; Dr. McCoy travels back in time and changes history. Whoops…
Change history? Now, there’s no longer a Starship Enterprise up above. Kirk and Spock are stranded on this strange planet. So naturally, Kirk and Spock must travel back to where McCoy seems to have landed, to undo whatever he did.
Turns out that McCoy was in New York in the 1930s. He changed history by preventing the death of a character played by the lovely Joan Collins. By not dying, this now-surviving character wound up changing the arc of time, such that the U.S. delayed its entry into World War II. Due to the delay, Germany prevailed, which led to a world not as we know it. Hence, no future Federation or starships.
Kirk and Spock figure this all out. And despite falling in love with the Joan Collins character, Kirk allows the original timeline to play out. She dies, sad to say.
Joan Collins and William Shatner, aka Captain Kirk. “On the Edge of Forever.”
But this particular death is not meaningless. By dying on schedule, so to speak, Joan Collins’s character restores history. Everything moves back onto the original track, and Starship Enterprise warps away to other missions.
Which makes me wonder what would’ve happened had Dr. McCoy time-travelled back a few more years to 1914, say, to prevent World War I.
Absent World War I, this would be a very different world. What if… ?
What if there had been no World War I?
Obviously, no massive war in Europe. No tens of millions of dead and wounded. No ruination across Belgium and France. No devastation across Central and Eastern Europe.
No wipeout of entire cross-sections of young (mostly) men from a multitude of nations in Europe, from Britain to Serbia. No displacement of entire populations in the ensuing, continent-scale operations.
Without World War I, we’d likely never have heard of a couple of famous veterans of the Italian front lines. No Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini, embittered former soldiers who went from trench-fighting to street-organizing.
No destruction of a long list of empires. Britain and France would not have been so weakened that their overseas empires unraveled. Germany might have held on to some of its overseas claims as well, from now-Namibia to more than a few South Pacific Islands.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire might have stayed intact a while longer. We’d see a very different Central and Eastern Europe. The nations of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania? Maybe not.
Or consider how the Balkans might have been different. Serbia would not have been utterly wrecked; per-capita, Serbia lost more of its population than any other nation at the time.
Or Russia. It’d likely be a very different place. Aside from not losing about two million dead in World War I, there would’ve been no 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Perhaps there would still be a tsar, and there never would’ve been a Soviet Union. No Communist International (ComIntern) throughout the 1920s and beyond. No Lenin. No Stalin.
Further southeast in Europe and beyond, absent World War I the Ottoman Empire might have remained intact. No Kemal Ataturk, staging an overthrow and reformation within Turkey.
Had the Turkish Caliph remained intact, Islam might have taken a different turn over the past century. No Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. No Wahhabism in Saudi; and maybe no Saudi.
At the least, we’d have no broken-up, formerly Ottoman Middle East, with an arbitrary hodge-podge of lines drawn on a map by Messrs. Sykes and Picot.
Along the foregoing lines concerning the Middle East, there’d have been no British Balfour Declaration, promising the same real estate in the Levant to both Zionists and Arab inhabitants. Israel? Hmm…
No militarization of entire Western economies. No transformation of civilian production en masse to military production. No mass-conscription. No “whole of government” or “whole of nation” approach to waging total war.
Poster from World War I Exhibit, Imperial War Museum, London. BWK photo.
And how about here in the U.S.?
Think about what would have happened to the U.S. if the country had remained out of World War I.
What if U.S. banks and industry hadn’t poured funds and materiel into early phases of the European war? Frankly, from 1914 to 1917, the European war might have simply ended due to national exhaustion.
After all, the nations of Europe quickly went broke from the war. But they kept on fighting. Why? Because they had access to funds and materiel.
Here’s what happened… In 1913 Congress created the Federal Reserve. By 1914, the new system of managing the nation’s money – the “elastic currency” – allowed U.S. lenders to supply so-called “credits” to British and French buyers. And U.S. industry made big money selling all manner of materials, chemicals and more into the arms pipeline.
Meanwhile, what if President Woodrow Wilson had stuck to his 1916 campaign promise to “Keep us out of war”?
Beginning in 1917, what if the U.S. had not disrupted its society and economy to raise a vast army and build out a new Navy? No draft. No mass-move of young men out of industrial cities and farmsteads. No large-scale internal movements of people in the U.S. to factories and shipyards building war machines.
What about those 116,000 dead U.S. soldiers, and over 300,000 wounded? What if they had lived, and gone on to work at careers and have families?
And what if there had been no so-called “Spanish Flu” incubated in U.S. military bases, and returned to the homeland in 1918?
On another angle, think about famous U.S. names who got their start via World War I. Franklin Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy; it showed, 20 years later. Or artillery officer Harry Truman. Or a young Army officer named Dwight Eisenhower. Or another officer named Douglas MacArthur. Or George Patton, Billy Mitchell, Omar Bradley, William Halsey, Chester Nimitz.
I could list names all day, but you get the idea.
And what if there had been no German defeat, followed by blockade and starvation over there? No Treaty of Versailles. No world-scale conference, where the likes of Ho Chi Minh and Chou en Lai were rebuffed by arrogant Westerners, and who then went back to Vietnam and China, respectively, and began looking for new ways of doing things.
Bottom line… With just a casual understanding of current events, you can see how World War I is still with us. The First World War was the DNA of our modern world.
World War II was an outgrowth of unfinished business from World War I. The Cold War was a follow-on to the Second World War, but with many of the First World War issues remaining as what are called “frozen conflicts.”
This “Edge of Forever” speculation isn’t just idle musing.
Back at Naval War College, we used to play around with what are called “counter factual” scenarios. That is. change the facts, and then re-imagine an outcome. Indeed, sometimes you don’t really know what happened until you examine what didn’t happen, or what might have happened.
Point is… And absent World War I… Absent how it concluded with the Armistice… We would live in a different world. Actually, “we” might not be here at all; different time lines and all.
Still, I don’t doubt that there would be veterans, of course. Other time lines would likely have their military necessities, if not their wars. Indeed, warfare seems to be one of those fundamental aspects of the human condition. It’s the ultimate, deciding tool in all foreign policy.
The country would still need its Soldiers and Sailors, its Airmen and Marines, Coasties and more… But absent World War I, the U.S would be a different country; a “Country on the Edge of Forever.”
Again, I hope you all had a good Veterans’ Day.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
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