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History as time travel
In his 1952 short story, “A Sound of Thunder,” Ray Bradbury wrote of a time traveler who visits the past as part of a big-game hunting expedition, with the quarry being dinosaurs. The organizers of the expedition order the hunters to stay on a special levitated pathway, lest they accidentally step on some plant or animal and possibly change the course of evolution. All but one obey, but this one, frightened at the approach of a tyrannosaurus, runs off the path into the forest. He is eventually retrieved, with no apparent harm done. The time travelers return to the present—only to find that things have changed, in ways subtle and decisive, including the election of a fascist candidate for president who had narrowly lost his race before they left. The man who went off the path looks down at his muddy boot and discovers that he crushed a butterfly.
Historians are time travelers; we organize expeditions to the past as part of our job. And we take our students and readers along with us. We don’t tell them not to step on butterflies, as our travel is virtual rather than real. But maybe we should.
Who, imagining some moment in the past, hasn’t wished it had turned out differently? William Faulkner put the sentiment memorably in his 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust: “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances.” If the order hadn’t come, Pickett’s disastrous charge wouldn’t have occurred, Lee’s invasion of the North might have continued, and the South might have won the war.
Whenever we criticize our forebears for their failures of conscience or nerve, we implicitly step on butterflies, for we imagine a world that would have evolved differently than our world actually did. If Virginia had turned away that ship carrying a cargo of enslaved Africans in 1619, America might have evolved without slavery. If reformers in the 1860s had insisted on adding “sex” to the Fifteenth Amendment’s ban on abridgments of voting, as many of them thought they should, women’s rights ever since might have been half a century farther along. If Harry Truman hadn’t ordered the atom bomb used against Japan, the world might have been spared the terror and continuing peril of the nuclear arms race.
But any such change would have set in motion other changes, with no guarantee the world would have been better off. Without a market in North America, the slave trade might have sent even more Africans to the Caribbean and South America, where conditions were harsher and life shorter than in the Chesapeake. The Nineteenth Amendment, which finally guaranteed women the vote, was followed shortly by the first comprehensive restriction on immigration, a priority of many of the progressives who backed woman suffrage. An earlier franchise for women might have produced earlier restrictions, with life-changing consequences for the millions of would-be immigrants thus turned away. If Truman hadn’t dropped the bomb in 1945, its first use might have come later, when the bombs were bigger and America no longer possessed a nuclear monopoly.
Counterfactual arguments can be entertaining. They can illuminate the past by compelling a look at the causal connections between events in history. But they shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Nor should most judgments upon the actions of people in the past be taken seriously. Some judgments—of Hitler for the Holocaust, for example—are inescapable. But most cases are not so clearcut. Judgments might make us feel better, which is not unimportant. But they tell us nothing about how the world might actually have been better than our world is. History is too complicated for that. Butterflies get into all sorts of things we can’t conceive of.