America’s Historical Turning Points

All history is full of turning points, and American history is no different. There were many points in American history where one decision could change everything.

We well know some of these potential paradigm shifts in American history. Others are obscure, but these turning points show us that history is not as stable as we think.

Some Potential Paradigm Shifts in American History Include

George Washington and the Constitutional Convention

Strangely, one of George Washington’s most important actions was to sit through a boring convention in a hot room.

Washington changed the course of American history by deciding to attend the Constitutional Convention. Only Washington’s presence gave the Constitutional Convention, and the document written at it credibility.

If Washington had refused to attend, it is probable that the public would not have supported the Constitution and the states would have rejected it.  Consequently, America could have become a very different country.

Would the United States have broken up, become a monarchy, fallen back under British rule, or succumbed to warlordism and dictatorship as the founders at the Convention feared? Remember, the first constitution the Articles of Confederation was a failure, the government it created was too weak to govern. Or could they have reformed the Articles to create an effective government?

We will never know because Washington attended to the Constitutional Convention. There were good reasons for Washington to avoid the convention.

The city they held it in, Philadelphia, was hot and unhealthy, and they held the convention in a small room in the summer. Just by going to Philadelphia, Washington risked catching diseases such as malaria. Washington could have stayed home with Martha at his luxurious estate at Mount Vernon in the Virginia countryside.

By attending the Convention, Washington ensured the states would adopt the Constitution and create a federal government.

The War of 1812 and Andy Jackson

One of the most important decisions by an American President was James Madison’s decision to ask Congress for a declaration of war against the British Empire in 1812.

Ultimately, the war was unnecessary because American and British diplomats had already settled the issue they fought it over impressment. Madison did not know British diplomats had agreed to end the Royal Navy’s practice of stopping American ships and seizing sailors suspected of being British subjects.

To explain, during the Napoleonic Wars, any experienced British sailor was subject to impressment (conscription) into the Royal Navy. Americans did not care if His Majesty’s press gangs dragged sailors out of British pubs. However, they did not like the practice of sailors being yanked off American ships by Royal Marines.

Without impressment there was no pretext for the War of 1812. The War was disastrous for America, US forces failed to achieve their principal objective ; the Conquest of Canada, British troops burned Washington, captured Detroit, and nearly overran Baltimore and New Orleans.

The greatest impact of the War of 1812 was to turn an obscure frontier lawyer-politician and amateur soldier Andrew Jackson into a national hero. Jackson became a national hero by winning the most impressive American victory of the War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans. Old Hickory inflicted a humiliating defeat on a British army.

The fame Jackson gained from his victory made him into a national figure and a credible presidential candidate. In 1824, Jackson blew up the American political system by winning the most popular and Electoral College votes in the presidential race.

However, the East Coast elite kept Andy out of the White House through one of the dirtiest tricks in American political history, the Corrupt Bargain of 1825. One result of the Corrupt of Bargain was that large numbers of ordinary Americans withdrew from the political system and organized a new political party; the Democrats. The Democrats were the first mass political party.

In 1828, the Democrats elected Jackson president and created the world’s first popular Democracy. The events of 1824 and 1828 could have been impossible had there been no War of 1812 to turn Jackson into a national hero. One result of Jackson’s popularity was the first American two-party system after the organization the Whigs, an anti-Jackson political party.

Had Madison not launched the War of 1812, America could have had a vastly different political system. It is possible the one party Republican political system of the Era of Good Feelings (1817-1824) could have lasted into the mid-19th Century without Andy Jackson to blow it up.

 Woodrow Wilson and World War I

 If any decision set America’s direction for the 20th Century it was President Woodrow Wilson’s (D-New Jersey) decision to enter World War I.

Madison’s rationale for the War of 1812 appears reasonable compared to Wilson’s 1917 lunacy. In 1812, the British were committing a demonstrable crime against American interests impressment and had been for over a decade. Additionally, there was a reasonable chance of American conquest of Canada as long as Napoleon I had Britain’s armies tied down in Europe.

In 1917, there was no strategic reason for America to enter World War I and questionable pretexts. IE German submarine attacks on American ships, Wilson refused to protect.

Additionally, one of Wilson’s justifications for war, German intervention in Mexico, was pure fantasy. The only Imperial German agents in Mexico were in Wilson’s mind. Similarly to George W. Bush’s (R-Texas) weapons of mass of destruction, the German Army in Mexico did not not exist.

Instead, Wilson’s only evidence for German intentions in Mexico was the Zimmerman Telegram, which promised German aid to Mexico. However, the Zimmerman Telegram did not say how German troops were supposed to reach Mexico with both the US Navy and the British Navy in the Atlantic.

Instead, Wilson’s only evidence for German intentions in Mexico was the Zimmerman Telegram, which promised German aid to Mexico. However, the Zimmerman Telegram did not say how German troops were supposed to reach Mexico with both the US Navy and the British Navy in the Atlantic.

The crimes the Germans were committing against the Belgians were no worse than those the Japanese were committing against the Koreans, the British against India, the French against Vietnam, or the Belgians themselves against the Congo. History shows Wilson’s claims of making the world safe for democracy were nonsense. In 1917, America was fighting to make the world safe for imperialism.

Strategically, playing the warring powers of Europe off against each other would have been a better strategy for America. The United States could have grown richer and more powerful while the European imperialists killed each other.

The American decision to enter World War I had many far-reaching effects. By 1917, the British and French running low on men and resources. The desperate situation could have forced the Entente to accept a negotiated peace without massive American reinforcements.

One result of that peace could have been to end the war between Germany and Russia. The continuation of the war against Germany was one of the major causes of the Russian Revolution. Indeed, the Germans were financing Lenin’s Bolsheviks to undermine the provisional Russian government that had replaced Czar Nicholas II.

Had World War I ended in the summer or fall of 1917, there could have been no Russian Revolution, no Soviet Union, no Communism, and no Cold War. The 20th Century could have been entirely different. Would Russia have become democratic, reverted to Czarist autocracy, or succumbed to fascism without Communism? We’ll never know.

Similarly, Britain and France could have been incapable of defeating Imperial Germany without American help. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine Hitler coming to power without the defeat of 1918 and the stab in the back in mythology. Thus, we almost had a 20th Century without Nazi Germany, or the Holocaust.

I think there could have been a World War II, had Wilson not entered World War I. Remember, the primary reason for World War II was that World War I ended without a satisfying settlement.

A strong possibility could have been a second conflict between Imperial Germany and the British Empire around 1940. The results could have been very different because Imperial Germany would have had a powerful navy capable of invading the United Kingdom.

Finally, Wilson’s World War I effort created a sick ideology that still plagues the United States and distorts our foreign policy: the belief that the United States has a holy mission to save force its values on the rest of the world. Many American leaders; including President Joe Biden (D-Delaware) still regard Wilson’s drivel about making the world safe for democracy as gospel.

I have to wonder what a 20th Century with a more humble or sensible America could have looked like. Notably, the international institutions of the 20th Century, the League of Nations, United Nations, World Monetary Fund, NATO, etc. were American constructs. What would those organizations have looked like if British or German experts had designed them?

If any decision made our World today, it was Wilson’s decision to enter World War I. However, two other decisions raise fascinating possibilities.

Einstein’s Letter

In 1939, history’s greatest theoretical physicist Albert Einstein had sensibly fled Nazi Germany for a lucrative job at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Yet Einstein, whose interest in politics was shallow, made one of the pivotal decisions of the 20th Century. He signed a letter. The letter; written by a group of European refugee scientists, was an attempt to warn US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) of the dangers of an atomic bomb.

The scientists feared, wrongly, that Nazi Germany was trying to build an atomic weapon. Einstein shared his fellow refugees’ fears and signed the letter which FDR, or his staff, read.

The rest is history, FDR and his advisors launched a massive US effort to develop an atomic bomb. That effort ultimately evolved into the gigantic Manhattan Project, which built the nuclear weapons US Army Air Force planes dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The world could have been a vastly different place had Einstein not signed the letter or FDR not read it. The US would have never embarked on the Manhattan Project and there could have been no atomic bombs in 1945.

That raises a host of intriguing possibilities. Would there have been a bloody Allied invasion with enormous casualties, as generations of American historians have claimed? Or could the Allies and the Japanese reached some of sort of negotiated settlement in 1945? An interesting possibility is that Japan could have remained a major military power instead of being disarmed by the US in 1945.

Similarly, could all the money and resources, the US government devoted to the Manhattan Project have been better used elsewhere. Perhaps to build better tanks or develop other potentially war-winning technologies such as jet aircraft or rockets earlier.

Notably, the Nazis who had no Manhattan Project developed both ballistic missiles and jet fighter planes before the United States. Without the Manhattan Project, the US could have deployed jet fighter planes or ballistic missiles by 1944.

In addition, both Russian and German soldiers had bigger and better tanks than Americans in World War II. Indeed, the deficiencies of British and American tank technology were so glaring by the summer of 1944, they triggered a debate in the British parliament.

One last question needs arises here, would there have been nuclear weapons without the Manhattan Project? Remember, it was only World War II and the fear of a Nazi or Japanese bomb that inspired the Manhattan Project.  

Would the USA, the Soviet Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, or some other nation eventually built a bomb? Or would nuclear weapons remained science fiction? It would have been hard to convince an American Congressman or a British member of parliament to spend money on a theoretical weapon without a giant existential threat such as Hitler.

That raises other questions, including World War III. I think the only reason a third world war did not break out in the 1950s or 1960s was nuclear weapons. Had there been no fear of nuclear annihilation, the Cuban Missile Crisis, would have probably triggered a Soviet American war. That war could have spiraled out of control as India and China jumped in to settle their own differences.  

Thus, Einstein’s letter is a perfect example of how small actions can affect history. One man’s decision to sign off on a simple letter and another man’s decision to read that letter, changed the course of World War II, caused tens of thousands of deaths, and possibly saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and prevented World War III.

 Sometimes history changing decisions can be great ones, such as going to war. But other times such decisions can be simple, such as signing a letter, or deciding to attend a conference. In history, simple personal decisions can lead to paradigm shifts.