Originally created 01/04/01

A book of what might have been



Richard Nixon was eloquent when he mourned the loss of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin after they were stranded on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Likewise, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was a true leader in accepting sole responsibility for the D-Day failure on June 6, 1944.

Of course, that's not what really happened. But Nixon and Eisenhower did prepare for those potential outcomes with pre-written speeches. The speeches are among many examples of "Almost History" that are kept in government archives and presidential libraries, according to a new book by that name.

Roger Bruns, deputy executive director of the National Archives' National Publications and Records Commission, compiled 90 speeches, memos and accounts of situations that almost became history, but didn't.

Bruns started work on the book about a year ago, when he saw a New York Times column by former Nixon speech writer William Safire. Safire was asked to write a speech in case Armstrong and Aldrin never made it back to Earth.

"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace," the speech reads, in words that were never uttered. "They will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown."

After Bruns read the Safire column, he said, a friend suggested he look for more examples of history that never was.

"He said, 'What about other documents that show the fragility of history, how tenuous it all is?' and that's what we did," Bruns said.

The outcome of D-Day was indeed tenuous, considering the heavy German forces protecting the French coast and the bad weather leading up to the famous offensive. Eisenhower was far from certain of victory, so he scrawled out the speech he would give in case the Allied forces were unsuccessful.

He stuck the small piece of paper in his wallet - and never had to take it out.

"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops," the statement read. "If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

The book recounts some other shocking what-ifs:

What if Beatles star John Lennon was deported, as the FBI intended? Or what if Nixon's application to the FBI in 1937 resulted in a job offer? What if the Titanic heeded advance warnings of icebergs in the area where it was sailing on April 14, 1912?

"Some people look at history as pre-destined to occur," Bruns said. He doesn't see it that way.

Otherwise, Theodore Roosevelt would have been assassinated and the Confederate forces would have won the Civil War.

When Roosevelt made his second bid for president under the Bull Moose Party label in 1912, he usually traveled with an eyeglass case and a thick copy of his speech in his coat pocket. The speech was thick - written in large letters on many pages - because of Roosevelt's poor eyesight.

On Oct. 14, 1912, the speech and his eyeglass case slowed a bullet headed straight toward his heart. Instead, the bullet barely pierced Roosevelt's skin.

"That's a case where the document itself changed history," Bruns said.

During the Civil War, a careless Confederate staff officer wrapped Gen. Robert E. Lee's battle plans for the famously bloody Antietam confrontation around his three cigars. He dropped the cigars.

A Yankee soldier later found the cigars, and the battle plans, on the ground. They were passed along to Union Gen. George McClellan. Knowing Lee's plans in advance, the Union stopped the Confederates' northward march.

"If they hadn't had the battle plans, it's almost a certainty (Lee) would have won that battle," Bruns said. There might have never been an Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln issued immediately after Antietam.

Bruns' book was published in October, before this year's election controversy was sparked in Florida by Palm Beach County's notoriously confusing butterfly ballot.

That ballot, along with Al Gore's concession speech that was never given on Nov. 7, would be good additions to the book, he said.

"All that's going on now has really helped the book," he said.

(Contact Jennifer Sergent at SergentJ@shns.com or http://www.shns.com.)